Mumbai’s Traumatized Coast

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

The Mumbai oil and chemical spill was a disaster that was waiting to happen. The files of our government are filled with warnings that could have prevented such an incident. Given our lack of respect for the environment I guess this oil spill had to happen and it will happen again.

Why were two ports at such a small distance from each other approved? JNPT was cleared at the instance of the late Prime Minister of India on a written assurance by her that the Mumbai Port Trust traffic would not be expanded, since this posed a threat to the citizens and also congested the city. Competition between them for enhanced capacities was never meant to be created. But since both ports come under different managements (a big mistake), they now compete

And who is paying the price? Our marine life and the fishermen who depend on the sea for their livelihood. And, of course every Mumbaikar. This was the breeding season for many marine species. This is also when many mangrove seedlings were taking root. All this has been damaged. Marine catch will be inedible for quite some time around Mumbai harbour. When the flamingos come to Mumbai they will be welcomed by oil-contaminated habitats. The spill has already killed birds and fish including manta rays. In time we will discover the impact on dolphins, turtles, sharks and other creatures too. But of course, I doubt that these losses will ever be "officially" tabulated. Nor will the impact on the over three million waders that are going to land along the shores of the Thane Creek, Sewri, and the Western Sea Board.

One way or the other we should not make the mistake of underestimating the long term damage of this accident. Oil residues will degrade slowly in contaminated mangrove soils because of the anaerobic nature of the soils just below the surface. Contrary to what some senior marine biologists have opined, just because the oil looks washed off the plants does NOT indicate the mangrove system has or will recover fast as you both have suggested. It may take years, possibly decades, for a recovery.

Unfortunately the Maharashtra State Government, Customs and Port Trust authorities have treated the manifests of MSC Chitra like a state secret. In any functional democracy in the world this manifest would have been made public. There are many lethal chemicals that have already contaminated the seas. Some of these are carcinogenic. Others may be time bombs waiting to go off. We just do not know until we know what they are.

Despite the fact that this was a huge disaster, the authorities and scientists who should have known better responded far too late. Why? Because we are a nation that undervalues its ecological assets and the health of citizens. The Coast Guard said (possibly with some justification) that once the pollution reaches the shore, it is the job of the MPCB. On the other hand sources within the MPCB said that senior officials expected the Coast Guard to act to prevent the oil from reaching the shore. Both the JNPT and the MPT port trusts have virtually washed their hands off the problem and are acting like spectators. Unfortunately, most mangrove activists rarely speak to each other, leave alone work together. The government has meanwhile said that the actual culprits, the owners of the ship, will be sued to meet all costs. I would not hold my breath waiting for that eventuality.

The key point is this. The advice of those who suggest: "Leave it to nature" is the worst of all possible options. Cleaning oil from thick mangrove patches is not advised, but sandy beaches and rock shores must be scoured to remove as much oil as possible. Sanctuary and TERI did jointly organise volunteers, notably the National Cadet Corps, which undertook a clean up in Alibagh. But this was more by way of a demonstration. In Mumbai's Navy Nagar too a clean up supervised by TERI is underway right now. But where are the hundreds of experts and scientists who publish paper after paper about marine ecology and pollution? They should be hard at work, contacting the fishing community, supervising, leading and guiding disciplined teams of people including many who should be paid to do this work.

If there is a lesson we need to learn from MSC Chitra it is this: "Mumbai and most other ports in India must declare a moratorium on any expansion until they can demonstrate to the public that they have invested money in "Worst Case Scenario" disaster management and safeguards. This should involve both systems and equipment upgradations against threats from rising seas -- an inevitability thanks to climate change.

The Mumbai oil spill was no ordinary accident. It was an environmental crime. The collision was a result of short cuts taken, of authorities who were not alert, of the misdemeanors of the Surface Transport Ministry and the Finance Ministry, which refused to equip our Coast Guard with adequate tools to tackle a spill of this nature.

So what lies ahead?

To prevent more such accidents in the future you could:


1. Ask for the declaration of the eco-sensitive, oil-affected zones as "Intensive Conservation Units". As it is these coasts have been brutalized by so-called development. This accident could push many areas over the brink.
2. Act. Don't wait and watch. We must prevent the hydrology of the affected areas from being disturbed by onshore or offshore developmental works and immediately restore the blocked hydrology (bunds, walls, reclamations), to the extent possible, by an executive or court order if necessary. The purpose of removing blockages is to restore tidal action to the fullest extent possible. There is probably no better way to work towards the
objective of increasing mangrove seedling and tree densities in the impact
zones.
3. Demand that protocols for restoration are agreed upon in consultation with experts who have actually handled such spills in sand areas, mudflats, rocky shore and mangroves.
4. Believe that nature DOES repair itself, but let us not believe that oil and chemicals contamination falls into the category of self-repair. The regeneration of contaminated sites will be much, much slower than comparable uncontaminated sites.

Check out these linked stories 

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