Washing away. Majuli's perilously eroded coast.

Historic Island in Peril

The world's largest river island will disappear within the next few decades from erosion by the mighty Brahmaputra River, scientists say. In the first detailed analysis of the problem, scientists at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jorhat say the river has already swallowed more than 50% of the island, called Majuli, since 1920. With a population of more than 130,000, Majuli is culturally important for eastern India. It has 22 Vaishnavaite monasteries, some of which date back to the 15th century, where traditional Hindu arts, music, and dance forms are kept alive.

Geologist Probhat Kotoky reported in last month's issue of the Indian journal Current Science that the island lost about 1.9 square kilometers per year between 1920 and 1998, the year of the most recent satellite photos. It is now about 577 km2, down from 1245 in 1920.

"If the situation remains unattended, the island will soon be engulfed by the Brahmaputra River and will become extinct from the world map," the authors write. Kotoky says the island could be saved by the construction of well-designed embankments, but all the antierosion measures taken so far have been ineffectual because they fail to take into account the hydrogeology of the region.