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Geomorphic change in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta

Abstract

More than 70% of large deltas are under threat from rising sea levels, subsidence and anthropogenic interferences, including the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna (GBM) delta, the Earth’s largest and most populous delta system. The dynamic geomorphology of this delta is often overlooked in assessments of its vulnerability; consequently, development plans and previous management investments have been undermined by unanticipated geomorphic responses. In this Review, we describe GBM delta dynamics, examining these changes through the Drivers–Pressures–States–Impacts–Responses framework. Since the early Holocene, the GBM delta has evolved in response to a combination of tectonics, geology, changing river discharge and sea level rise, but the dynamics observed today are driven by a complex interplay of anthropogenic interferences and natural background processes. Contemporary geomorphic processes such as shoreline change, channel migration, sedimentation and subsidence can increase flooding and erosion, impacting biodiversity, ground and water contamination and local community livelihoods. Continued human disturbances to the GBM delta, such as curtailing sediment supplies, modifying channels and changing land use, could have a more direct influence on the future geomorphic balance of the delta than anthropogenic climate change and sea level rise. In order to contribute to long-term delta sustainability, adaptation responses must therefore be informed by an understanding of geomorphic processes, requiring increased transdisciplinary research on future delta dynamics at centennial timescales and collaboration across all governing bodies and stakeholders.

Key points

  • The interplay between long-term tectonic and eustatic sea level changes, sudden earthquake perturbances and large-scale man-made management schemes in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna (GBM) delta are the key drivers that shaped its evolution.

  • This review provides a spatial representation of the sediment budget, which is necessary for delta management decisions, including the potential for harnessing natural sedimentation processes to enhance land generation.

  • Mapping the spatio-temporal extent of documented geomorphic processes revealed gaps in understanding at the centennial scales and into the future, which are both critical to delta management decisions, as most infrastructures are expected to be effective for up to 100 years into the future.

  • Only 40% of the 427 reviewed publications assess geomorphic processes as interconnected, potentially resulting in a fragmented understanding of dynamics.

  • Geomorphic processes are mostly absent from models of flooding and water security in the GBM delta. These omissions undermine the validity of longer-term projections and call into question the appropriateness of management decisions that are based upon these models.

  • Anthropogenic disturbances could have a more direct influence on the future geomorphic balance of the GBM delta than climate change and sea level rise.

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Fig. 1: Location of the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta.
Fig. 2: Distribution of geomorphic studies assessing different components of the DPSIR framework.
Fig. 3: Timeline of geomorphic evolution of the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta.
Fig. 4: Sediment budget in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta system.
Fig. 5: Subsidence across the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta.
Fig. 6: Predominant impacts of geomorphic change in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta.
Fig. 7: Key systemic gaps in scientific understanding of geomorphic change in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded in part by the engineering and consultancy practice Buro Happold, and is an output from the REACH programme funded by UK Aid from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for the benefit of developing countries (Programme Code 201880). However, the views expressed and information contained are not necessarily those of or endorsed by Buro Happold or FCDO, which accept no responsibility for such views or information, or for any reliance placed on them. The authors acknowledge the support of S. Ferguson in the creation of Fig. 4 and I. Bhalla in the creation of Fig. 7b, and the continuous insightful discussions with N. Venn and H. Rich.

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A.P. conceptualized the research, analysed the literature and wrote the manuscript. S.G., E.B., M.S.A.K. and J.W.H contributed to the discussion and reviewed the manuscript prior to submission. Conceptualization and development of the manuscript were supervised by E.B. and J.W.H.

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Correspondence to Amelie Paszkowski.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks R. Sinha, C. Wilson and S. Darby for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Glossary

Aggradational

Increased land elevation due to the deposition of sediment.

Progradational

Growth of land further out into the sea.

Subaerial delta

The deltaic plains above the low-tide level.

Subaqueous delta

The deltaic plains that lie below low-tide level and extend seaward.

Avulsed

The rapid creation of a new river channel, and abandonment of the former river channel.

Siltation

Increased concentrations of suspended sediments and accumulation of fine sediments within river channels.

Charlands

Sand bars emerging in river channels or riverbanks as a result of sediment accretion.

Polders

Low-lying land enclosed by embankments, providing protection from storm surges and salinity intrusion.

Beels

Shallow wetlands where the water level changes seasonally, supporting dry-season agriculture.

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Paszkowski, A., Goodbred, S., Borgomeo, E. et al. Geomorphic change in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 763–780 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00213-4

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