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Did Mumbai learn nothing from 2005?

By Kalpana Sharma

Although the realisation that Mumbai’s mangroves have to be preserved has sunk in after the disastrous floods of 2005, nothing concrete has been done about it. Now there are plans to build a new airport that, environmentalists say, will result in an estimated 170 hectares of mangroves being destroyed. And the diversion of two rivers

When the rains set in, people in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata worry every day about the prospect of wading through flooded streets. They ask themselves whether they will get through another monsoon without experiencing the kind of disaster Mumbai faced in 2005. Have any lessons been learned? 

A crucial message that came through a disaster like the one in 2005 -- forced by nature but compounded by human folly -- was the importance of allowing nature to play the role it always has in mediating between large quantities of water and the ability of the soil to absorb it. Urbanisation inevitably forces the paving over of open spaces and dirt stretches. As a result, an important method of absorption of rainwater and its runoff is destroyed.

The other natural ‘drain’ that cities, particularly those located near the sea, have are mangroves -- unique wetlands that act as a check for excess water from rising seas encroaching landwards, while draining out excess rainwater even during heavy showers. 

Yet urbanisation is increasingly killing this valuable resource. 

Its value, of course, goes beyond its function as a natural drain. Mangroves are repositories of important biodiversity, both flora and fauna. They attract birds and insects, as well as aquatic life. They spawn vegetation that is unique and sturdy as it is able to withstand strong tides and denudation. They survive in a unique combination of saline and fresh water.

Although the realisation has sunk in, particularly in the case of Mumbai, following the 2005 flooding, that mangroves must be protected, the reality is that nothing is being done about it.  ‘Protection’ is an aim, a desire that is not backed by concrete plans, by vigilance that would ensure that the wetlands survive urbanisation’s onslaught.

After the 2005 flooding, an inquiry held into the reasons for the flooding came out with a telling report titled ‘Mumbai Marooned: An Enquiry into Mumbai flood 2005’. It reported:

“With the rapid growth of the city in the last two decades, the once extensive mangrove ecosystems along the Mithi river and the Mahim creek have been destroyed. Hundreds of acres have been reclaimed for construction. These ecosystems serve as a buffer between land and sea. It is estimated that Mumbai has lost about 40% of its mangroves between 1995 and 2005, some to builders and some to encroachment (slums). Sewage and garbage dumps have also destroyed mangroves. Much of the Bandra-Kurla Complex was created by replacing such swamps and mangrove areas.”

The website Mangroves in Mumbai ( states: “Around 20 out of the 35 species of true mangroves found in India have been identified along the Maharashtra coast and 15 species of these are found in Mumbai. Because of the high salinity of the soil, something like 60% of Mumbai mangroves comprise Avicennia marina. Not surprisingly, this species also tolerates pollution including heavy metals such as lead, mercury and chromium, all found in significant concentrations in the Mithi river.” There is no fresh estimate of the additional loss of mangroves in Mumbai since 2005.

Despite this renewed appreciation of the vital role mangroves play in absorbing water and preventing floods, there are daily reports in the newspapers of mangroves being cut, or being “reclaimed” by the deliberate and organised dumping of construction debris. It only stops if people in the neighbourhood are alert and protest, or intervene through the municipal corporation.

With the kind of frenetic lives people lead in the city, it would be a Herculean task if ordinary citizens were expected to play the role of vigilantes to protect the remaining mangrove swamps. Still, some Mumbai citizens have taken on the task. One group has set up a blog, Mumbai Mangroves ( that documents the destruction through pictures. They also fire off letters to the authorities each time this happens.

Such groups have had to turn to the courts to ensure that the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification that protects mangroves is actually implemented. Yet, despite a Bombay High Court order freezing and banning construction within 50 metres of mangroves, the violations continue. 

The latest controversy to come up is the location of a new airport at Navi Mumbai. Environmentalists insist that this will result in an estimated 170 hectares of mangroves being destroyed, and will also lead to the diversion of two rivers. They point out that the existing airport has already encroached on mangroves along the Mithi river -- the river was actually diverted to facilitate the extension of a runway -- and that the new one will cause much greater damage.

The new airport is expected to accommodate at least 10 million passengers in the first year, and eventually double that capacity. The existing airport is stretched to capacity and there is clearly a need for a new airport in a city like Mumbai. But 90% of the site in Navi Mumbai consists of mangroves; it will inevitably have to be drained and filled in.   

During a recent visit to Mumbai in June, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told the media that the environmental assessment report on the location of the Navi Mumbai site for the new airport, done by the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, had been sent back as it was found to be unsatisfactory in some respects. “We have sought several clarifications ranging from CRZ to conservation issues and sent back the report to the state environment department,” Ramesh is reported to have said.   This has put the project on hold temporarily, and allows environmental groups a chance to press home their argument that, in the interests of preserving this important natural resource, alternative sites must be considered. 

One wonders who will win in the tussle between the environment ministry and the civil aviation ministry, which insists that there is no other suitable site for the new airport. Those concerned about the long-term sustainability of urban areas that are premised on preservation of some of the natural environment, or those who believe that such concerns cannot overrule infrastructure demands, whether they be for a new airport, a new highway, or even a new shopping mall. 

The question of protecting mangroves in a city like Mumbai brings out the larger issue of environmental planning for cities and towns. Increasingly, around the world, it is acknowledged that the best cities are those where these concerns are factored into the planning process. Thus, if you have green spaces you preserve them; if you have mangroves you ensure they are not destroyed; if you have old trees you try and work around them and preserve them; if you have a coastline you make sure that construction does not alter tidal patterns. This, apart from working out systems of transport that minimise air pollution, building systems that allow clean water to travel to taps without getting polluted by faecal or other matter, providing efficient systems of garbage clearance that make the piles of uncleared garbage rotting on the streets of Indian cities a distant memory, providing adequate sanitation facilities for the urban poor so that they don’t have to defecate out in the open… The wish list is endless. Unfortunately, given the current state of Indian cities and towns, it appears almost unattainable.

Infochange News & Features, July 2010