Reclaiming Mumbai’s Mangroves
Monica Szczupider examines Mumbai’s gross disregard of its mangrove eco-system, and explores the work of a small group of people trying to reclaim and regrow this most vital city organ.
Photo: Monica Szczupider.
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 Sanjay Gandhi (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: mangrove trees 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 crisscrossing 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.
Kavita Mallya knows the importance of a healthy wetland ecosystem. A wildlife conservation biologist and a 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 sleep 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.
Photo: Monica Szczupider.
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 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 back into the ocean. That's what they do.
So you can imagine what happens when you alter the landscape as drastically as it has been 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 cuts off two sources of drainage in the city.
"In addition to destroying the mangroves, the [Mithi] flood plains were also reclaimed to build the BKC, pinching the mouth of the river," Mallya explains, referring to the sweet water artery that courses life into the metropolis. "Pipelines were laid underneath it and the top of the river was reclaimed to make the [airport] runway."
A double whammy: the rains that assaulted Bombay in 2005 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.
Photo: Monica Szczupider.
Vanashakti knows 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 refuse that is consequently generated.
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 to accommodate the demands of the city's perpetually swelling population: everything from casinos to slum-dwellings to luxury high-rises. Often, these coastal areas are already home to small fishing communities, but perhaps, as crass as it sounds, these communities are considered dispensable in the face of the growing economy and population. Certainly no one from the municipality would publicly describe it that way, but if not, then why is it always these villages that the municipality seeks out to operate dumping grounds?
In addition to supporting endangered fishing communities, Vanashakti is now also keeping tabs on a particular ecological void that was once a thriving biosphere. 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. In fact, up to ten species of migratory avifauna now skip the wetland altogether. There's nothing left to eat, and nowhere left to nest. There isn't even really anywhere to perch.
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 2,500 hectares of land in Uran. Since its inception in 1989, two-thirds of the land owned by JNPT 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 100 metre long and 10 metre high wall. The wall obstructs the flow of tidal waters, systematically asphyxiating all the wetlands that it contains on the inside.
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.
"There used to be lots of birds," nods our rickshaw driver in Hindi. “I’ve been driving a rickshaw here since 1985. A few years later all the construction began. Now there's nowhere left to see them."
The plans for Uran are huge. Port expansion, augmented highway connectivity, reclamation of coastal wetlands to make container storage terminals, office buildings, clubhouses, as well as a proposal for a brand-new international airport within the vicinity. Housing is even on the agenda, and for a country that hosts the world's largest population of impoverished people, it's curious to see plans for the development of high priced, unaffordable dwelling units.
"It's a matter of great concern for me," says Stalin D., environmental activist and Director for Projects at Vanashakti. "What are we producing that we are exporting? What is the need for so many ports along the coastline with so much beauty and tourism potential? This only means that you are moving towards an import based economy, which spells doom for the agriculture and industrial labor sector.”
Most of Maharashtra's export industry, including cotton and textiles, no longer exists. The expansion of the port by JNPT, who manages 60 per cent of the country's containerized import / export cargo, will largely accommodate imported goods – further competition for an already faltering economy.
And the housing?
“With over half a million unsold housing units and over a quarter million unoccupied, there can be no justification for the continuing construction all across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). This is nothing but parking of ill-gotten black money which cannot be kept in banks by the developer-politician mafia,” says Mallya. “For a state with an average per capita income of INR 107,670 (as per government figures), how is it expected that a person buy a house whose minimum cost is INR 10 million?”
Photo: Monica Szczupider.
Despite the gravity of the challenges it faces, Vanashakti labors on (the name, Sanskrit in origin, translates from vana to "forest" and shakti to "power"). In addition to mangrove reforestation and preservation, the NGO also focuses on environmental sensitization.
Like most conservationists, Mallya knows that battles cannot be won without the cooperation of the humans who live in the affected areas. And of those humans, children are usually the most receptive to the message. Try it once: sit down with a group of eight-year olds. Tell them that mangrove forests are disappearing, and with them, the unique wildlife that depends on them for food and shelter. The amphibians. The fish. The birds. The mammals. Tell them that one day, the only place these animals will be left is in zoos. Tell them these things, and you will find yourself with an outraged army of precocious conservationists, ready to save the world.
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 of the trees glinting in the sunlight. 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 and preservation of Mumbai's mangrove forests.
An American freelance travel and conservation writer-photographer, Monica Szczupider is based in Mumbai, India.