The Ganges–Brahmaputra river delta, with 170 million people and a vast, low-lying coastal plain, is perceived to be at great risk of increased flooding and submergence from sea-level rise. However, human alteration of the landscape can create similar risks to sea-level rise. Here, we report that islands in southwest Bangladesh, enclosed by embankments in the 1960s, have lost 1.0–1.5 m of elevation, whereas the neighbouring Sundarban mangrove forest has remained comparatively stable.