Lighting lives in the Sundarbans

Posted on 18 July 2011

WWF-India helps provide renewable energy lighting to remote communities.
By Ameen Ahmed, WWF-India

WWF-India helps provide renewable energy lighting and electricity to remote communities

The Sundarbans in India is a vast mangrove forest – a place where rivers and the sea meet and nourish a vibrant yet fragile ecosystem. Home to myriad reptiles, birds and the iconic and endangered tiger, the Sundarbans also has many human residents. It remains, however, an energy-deficient region, with many communities yet to be connected to the conventional power grid.

According to a study, 18 villages coming under the purview of the Sundarbans Development Area are not likely to be electrified through conventional power, at least in the near future. Given this scenario, one solution is local, decentralized power generation using renewable sources like solar, wind or biomass. WWF-India, in collaboration with The Centre for Appropriate Technology, Australia’s indigenous science and technology organisation, is implementing the Bush Light India Project to demonstrate and assess a model for the electrification of remote villages in the Sundarbans using renewable energy.

In March 2011, a solar power station was set up at Rajat Jubilee village. This project is unique, as it is owned and managed by a cooperative in which all consumers are shareholders. WWF-India took the lead in facilitating community mobilisation, including the village energy planning process. In addition, WWF-India assisted and supported the community to establish the institutional structures required to manage the system for the 15 years of its design life.

Lighting to reduce human-wildlife conflict
Most of us don’t need to think very hard to name the benefits of electricity in our lives. For some communities in the Sundarbans, a simple streetlight can be a lifesaver. In the villages adjoining the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, we installed 20 solar streetlights. To ensure security of the systems, WWF-India provided one home light connection to each of the individual households that were the immediate beneficiaries of the streetlights, thus making them accountable for the systems.

Before installation of each solar streetlight, an agreement was signed with local leaders, forest department officials and community representatives. The responsibilities detailed in the agreement have been performed successfully by each organization, and the systems are functioning well. There have been no incidences of tigers straying out of the reserve into the villages where the lights are installed.

Even when some of the streetlights were destroyed by a cyclone, none of the materials supporting the systems – modules, batteries, solar panels – were lost, because all was kept in safe custody by the immediate beneficiaries. This proved the communities’ commitment to maintaining the system, and prompted authorities of the tiger reserve to come forward to pay for the repair and reinstallation of the lights. The repaired lights are working to date.

Shakila Bibi is a resident of Kalitala village, adjoining Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. She says: “A narrow creek separates our village from the forest, and earlier there was no light at night in the area where I lived. Tigers would frequently visit our village under the cover of darkness. WWF-India provided me a combined solar light connection (a streetlight and home light). The streetlight was installed in front of my house, and now the tigers stay away. I am also happy with the home light connection. When the cyclone damaged the system on my street, I kept the materials at a safe place with the hope that they would be re-installed. I am happy that the light was repaired.”

Fishers, Sundarbans National Park, Bangladesh.
© David Woodfall / WWF-UK
A female Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) resting in the undergrowth of a mangrove forest in the Southeast Sundarbans, Khulna Province, Bangladesh.
© /Tim Laman / WWF