What's Happening to Mumbai's Mangroves?

January 20, 2015  •  2 Comments
Even as recently as a hundred years ago, Mumbai was markedly quieter: a myriad wetland ecosystem of mangrove forests and tropical birds hugging the picturesque Arabian Sea.  What is now one long concrete peninsula was once seven biologically-rich marsh islands.  Then, bird and insect calls were on the symphonic menu; today, it's honking horns and the buzz of a quarter-million auto rickshaws.  As the city exploded, the mangroves were leveled, the inter-island waterways were filled with debris and concrete, and lo and behold, Bombay became a singular entity, from heavily-touristed Colaba in the south to sprawling Borivali National Park in the north.  The park, a blessed exception to Mumbai's insatiable lust for development, is home to free-ranging leopards, hyenas, and deer, and acts as the city's one functioning lung after most of the mangroves were destroyed.
Let's be clear: mangroves are indispensable to their ecosystem -- without them, there are no wetlands.  Besides providing habitat for terrestrial, arboreal, and aquatic creatures, the root system of a mangrove forest is thick and complex -- thousands of fingers holding the terra firmly in place.  Without that criss-crossing groundwork, run-off occurs more frequently and whatever is put into the land -- fertilizers, pesticides, toxins -- flows into the ocean.  A healthy mangrove forest acts as a barricade, preventing not only erosion, but also guarding terrestrial species (humans included) from phenomena like tsunamis.  And those perks come packaged in a habitat for birds, reptiles, fishes, and amphibians -- especially for hatchlings ensconced in the dense network of roots, safe from larger, predatory species who cannot navigate the tight spaces.
In flight (G. Macaco Pawar)
A kingfisher -- one of India's best recognized birds, and a very accomplished predator.
Kavita Mallya knows the importance of a healthy wetland ecosystem.  The Project Officer with the NGO Vanashakti, she can often be found at a quiet mangrove forest patch off the Eastern Express Highway at Bhandup, in northeastern Mumbai.  She patiently spends her weekends under the hot sun, explaining to volunteers why they've sacrificed sleeping in to meet her in Mumbai's version of no man's land.  They've come armed with shovels and gloves, and outfitted in the kind of clothes which only non-gardeners purchase for gardening: outfits that cost as much as a domestic flight.  Something is rousing Mumbai's upper middle class out from their beds on Sunday mornings -- the only free day in the workweek for many of them -- and into the mud to plant trees.  
And it isn't necessarily sentimental.
In 2005, Maharashtra bore witness to cataclysmic floods that claimed some 1500 human lives.  Mumbai and her surrounding areas were pounded with nearly 40 inches  of precipitation within 24 hours, followed by torrential rains the ensuing week.  While the storms themselves were record-placing (July 26th of that year remains eighth on the list of the most rainfall received on a single day), it's nonetheless important to remember that heavy rains aren't unusual here.  In fact, India hosts one hell of a monsoon season.  The Western Ghats -- the mountain range that runs parallel to the west coast, and, incidentally, one of the world's hotspots of biodiversity -- act no differently than any other mountain range: that is, as storms pass, the mountains snag the clouds that go by.  Anything within the vicinity of the Ghats then gets pummeled  with rain.  That's just what mountains do.  Mangrove forests, on the other hand, act as sponges that absorb excess water and help navigate it either into the earth's groundwater supply or back into the ocean.  That's what they do.  
But the landscape has been altered drastically in Mumbai.  In the case of the 2005 floods, the construction of the Bandra-Kurla complex is often to blame.  The commercial zone, built (despite predictions of disaster) on top of what was once a sprawling mangrove forest in the western suburbs, essentially blocks an important drainage route when rains are heavy.  The flood plains of the Mithi, the sweetwater artery of Mumbai, were also reclaimed to build the complex, which in turn pinched the mouth of the river.  The rains that assuaged Bombay that year simply had nowhere to go.  There was no soil to absorb the rising water levels, only concrete that acted as a bowl.  The floods leveled parts of the city, taking with them hundreds of inhabitants.  It could easily happen again.
Even in such an urban area, many people still rely on wetlands.  This family lives just a few steps from one of the city's busiest highways.
Conservation in a city like Mumbai is no easy task. It's filled beyond capacity: a body crowded with twice the amount of necessary organs.  The infrastructure is haphazard and unplanned, like a carnival funhouse with stairs and doors that lead to nowhere perched on a grid drawn by a two-year old.  In this particular method of madness, providing adequate living space for twenty million human beings can be wretchedly challenging -- and so can properly disposing the consequent generated refuse.
Not an uncommon sight, unfortunately.  Piles of rubbish ring one of the city's remaining wetlands.
So the state has fallen back on old plans to tackle the double-edged sword of land shortage and a growing waste problem: transform the remaining mangrove tracts into dumping grounds, and push the boundaries of the city into the water.  Used until they are saturated, the grounds are slathered in concrete, then sold to developers as precious parcels of land to accommodate the demands of the city's perpetually swelling population: everything from casinos to slum-dwellings to luxury high-rises. 
Vanashakti is now supporting local fisherman to fight one such dumping ground.  Across the bay from Mumbai, almost due-east as the crow flies from charming Colaba, sits the state's largest wetland, Uran.  A long-time favorite spot for birdwatchers, there have been curiously few birds to see in recent years.  Some ten species of migratory birds now skip Uran altogether.  There's not much for them to eat, and few viable options for nesting.
Filling in what used to be a wetland.  This is Uran today, which used to be Maharashtra's most biodiverse wetland ecosystem.
The land surrounding Uran has been designated as a Specialized Economic Zone (SEZ): a term for a region groomed to become attractive to foreign investors.  The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), the state body that manages the port of the same name, owns 2500 hectares of land in Uran.  Since its inception in 1989, some two-thirds of JNPT's property has been filled and reclaimed for development, and now the remaining third is being eyed, as well.  When a petition filed by a local Uran fisherman alleged the continued destruction of the mangroves, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) investigated and subsequently uncovered a number of violations, including the alarming construction of a wall that obstructs the flow of tidal waters, essentially asphyxiating all that it contains.  Though the JNPT was ordered by the MCZMA to tear it down, as of October 2014, the wall still stands. 
Uran feels like an avifaunal ghost town.  Amidst port containers and oil pipelines,  concrete debris and piles of boulders, there are a just a few buttons of actual bodies of water remaining.  The birds are an even rarer sight: a coot here, an egret there, an ibis if you're lucky.
The plans for Uran are huge.  Port expansion, augmented highway connectivity from the port to surrounding cities, as well as a proposal for a brand-new international airport.  But for a state whose primary export industry --  cotton and textiles -- no longer exists, the question must be asked: what is being produced that is being exported?  In fact, how will Maharastha's economy benefit from the port expansion?  It can only be assumed that the expansion will largely accommodate imported goods -- further competition for an already faltering economy.  
Surrounded on all sides, this is what most remaining wetlands look like today.  Moreover, many  emit a retch-inducing stench, indicative of the water's health.
But in this city, preservation and reforestation of the mangroves will continue in the same way that Mumbai wins over her guests -- one begrudging inch at a time.  It will come with such grace, yet such tenacity, that no one will realize it's even happening, until one day, someone notices the birds singing more often.  And the green glinting in the sunlight again.   And those who did it -- those crouched in the hot sun, or the pounding rain, quietly planting sapling after sapling in the city's long-suffering earth -- will ask for no thanks other than continued appreciation of Mumbai's mangrove forests.


This is very well written. The phrase "avifaunal ghost town" speaks volumes. Your readers get solid news of the problem and its solution. In the US we have an EPA. It is largely controlled by business related monies and lobbies, and does not do what environmentally aware members of the US society would hope. Still, the protection of wetlands is a priority that has laws behind it. Developers still walk rough shod over many fragile environments, but laws are a part of the process helping us move toward sustainability. Mumbai's situation threatens more the citizens in dramatic ways, but Vanashakti might actually accomplish a rejuvenation of wetlands that our EPA can only promise in a verbal sense.
Wow Monica! I enjoyed reading this. You are an exceptional person, inside and out. Your heart is as big as it gets. Thanks for informing us.
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