Death of the Mangroves

Story by Ari Balle-Bowness

With their twisted knobbly grey roots and waxy green leaves, Mumbai’s mangroves may not have the romance of Tokyo’s cherry blossoms or the majesty of California’s giant redwoods, but they are by no means less iconic. 

For thousands of years these wiry sentinels have stood guard along the coastline, weathering the brunt of tsunamis and cyclones, and stopping the Arabian sea from claiming the seven islands of Mumbai.

They were here long before the British hacked though swathes of mangrove forests to stitch the islands together into one landmass and, as the salty air gave way to the smog of industrialisation, these wetland forests became the city’s only filtration system – the green lungs of a city slowly choking.

Today, hugging the edge of an ever-expanding metropolis, these mangroves have been reduced to a mere 50 sq km and are fighting for survival. After three centuries of land reclamations, little is left of the splendid tracts of lush green mangrove forests that once fringed the region. 

Fisheries researcher Geetanjali Deshmukhe was part of 2005 study that used remote sensing technology to map Mumbai’s mangrove cover. The study found the mangrove cover in the Mumbai suburban region to be just 56.40 sq km, with only 45.4% of the area showing what the researchers called ‘dense coverage’. The report also noted that between 1990-2001 a staggering 36.54 sq km of mangrove forest were lost.

In a city of 22 million few people understand the true value of mangroves, and even fewer have spent a lifetime studying them. With a doctorate in mangrove research, Mumbai University’s Professor Sanjay Deshmukh is an exception.

“Mangroves, require a piece of land which will get regularly inundated by high tide,” Prof Deshmukh says, nibbling a ginger sweet over a pot of freshly brewed tea. 

“Regular such inundation, on a muddy shore, gives rise to more acclimation of silt, becoming conducive for the growth of mangroves.”

His office on the third floor of the Life Sciences department, filled with numerous awards and meticulously stacked bookshelves, project the work ethic of a methodical researcher.

“Seedlings travel on the high-tide,” he explains, settling in for a long chat, “…landing upon the sediment rich shores, beginning the mangrove succession process.” 

The professor explains that once settled, these seedlings quickly develop roots, firmly attaching themselves to muddy soil. The young mangroves will now start their journey to become part of one of the most important ecosystem in the world.

A two-year study undertaken by Prof Deshmukh and his team showed the mangroves’ remarkable capacity to absorb harsh chemicals and pesticides from the water, stopping them from entering the food chain.  He says mangroves growing in polluted water can absorb up to 60% of the heavy metals in that water.

“Because of this, the surrounding area becomes relatively clean,” he says.

Prof. Deshmukh explains the mangroves are not only a water filtration system but also an air filter claiming the wetland mangrove forests are able to absorb up to five times more carbon dioxide than any other forests, and emit three times more oxygen and even significant amounts of ozone. 

“They are the green-lungs,” he says.

Less than half-an-hour’s drive from Prof Deshmukh’s office are the Pirojshanagar mangroves in Vikhroli East. Covering nearly 2000 acres the mostly grey mangrove (Avicennia marina) forest is the largest of its kind on privately owned land. The land belongs to the wealthy Godrej family.

The Godrejs’ have been patronising mangrove conservation since the 1940s and family has supported pioneering mangrove research since the eighties.

Dr Hemant Karkhanis is head of the Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Marine Ecology Centre on the edge of the Pirojshanagar wetland forest. 

“Many mangroves have chemical and medicinal value,” Dr Karkhanis says to a group a university students sitting cross legged on the eco-centre floor. 

University study tours are part of the Godrej mangrove forest’s education outreach program. The family prefers to maintain this low-profile work with their mangrove forests shying away from large-scale eco-tourism.

 “Scientist have discovered the sap from the Milky Mangrove has medicinal purposes,” Dr Karkhanis continues.  

“If you apply the raw juice on any external wound, it will close very fast and prevent any septic infections,” he says, although he does warn the students that the sap can also cause temporary blindness if dropped directly into the eyes.

Early Godrej research on the Avicennia marina and Acanthus ilicifolius mangroves species indicates high antibacterial efficacy, and more recent studies had shown Rhizophora apiculata may be effective against the common human pathogens Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida abicans.

“This land is prime real-estate worth millions but Godrej will never let these wetland forests be destroyed,” Dr Karkhanis assures the students. 

In the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the July 2005 floods Mumbaikars are slowly waking up to the protective power of their mangrove forests after decades of ignoring scientists pleas to preserve them.

On July 26, Mumbai was drowning in watery chaos. The city’s drainage system was completely overwhelmed by a torrential rainfall of 944mm in a single day. It was one of the worst floods in living memory. The usually bustling city of 23 million came to a standstill, and in just two days more than 1000 people were dead.

Inadequate drainage is a legacy of seven decades of jerrybuilding over sewer systems built by the British. Flooding during the monsoon season is nothing new. But the July 2005 rain was. It was a glimpse of a future Mumbai dare not ignore.

Local rivers such as the Mithi, clogged with rubbish, couldn’t ease the deluge. Mumbai’s natural drainage sinks, and the wetland forests along the Mithi and Mahim creek, buried under a concrete jungle, were no longer there to retain and draw the rainwater into the ground.

Many scientists, including Prof Deshmukh, agree that if Mumbai retained more of its coastal wetlands, the impact and loss of human life would have been far less.

By way of proof, a Godrej study by researcher Meenakshi Malik in 2007 showed that the areas of Manori and Malad creeks in North Mumbai that retained heavy mangrove cover were not flooded, while residents in areas built on reclaimed wetland mangrove forests suffered substantial water-logging.  

Conservation science is slow to penetrate some of the most impoverished communities in Mumbai, and when it does, the necessity to survive in an ever-crowded city takes over. On the edge of Manori creek alone, 10 000 shanties of Ganpath Patil Nagar spill onto nearly 50 acres of mangrove land inside the protected Coastal Regulatory Zone.

On paper, India’s mangroves are well protected under the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) notification issued by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest under the 1986 Environmental Protection Act.  But since 1991 there have been 25 amendments to the CRZ notifications, which activists say have eroded their legislative efficacy. 

Bombay Environment Action Group’s Debi Goenka, dubbed the mangrove man of India, has been working on protecting Mumbai’s mangroves for more than three decades.

“In fact, the CRZ notification of 1991 has been replaced and superseded first by the CRZ 2011 and now by the CRZ 2019 notifications that are much weaker than the 1991 notification,” he says. Goenka explains the mangroves in Maharashtra are also protected under the Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.

Actual figures on mangrove coverage are rubbery, but state records show there exists 15,087.6 hectares of reserved mangrove forests and about 10,200 hectares of private mangrove forests. 

“If they are on private lands they would have to be categorised as mangroves in the revenue records, and the Forest Conservation Act would then apply to those as well,” Goenka says. 

Goneka was one of the principal petitioners of a mangrove protection Public Litigation Case filed in the Mumbai High Court in 2004. The court ruled in favour of the litigants with an interim order in October 2005 and final order in September 2018.

Following the court order the Maharastra state government proactively created a mangrove cell, with a senior officer in charge, tasked with the active protection of mangroves.

Since then the tide has finally started to turn and Mumbai’s and Maharashtra’s mangroves that were once protected mostly ‘on paper’ are now being protected ‘on the ground’.

“Earlier mangroves were only protected under CRZ notification and there was no presence on the ground by the environment department,” Goneka says.

“All these violations that were earlier allowed by government, cutting of mangroves, has now virtually stopped and whatever is happening is happening clandestinely, underground.”

Hindustan Times’ Badri Chatterjee is one of Mumbai’s leading environmental journalists who has done many news reports on the state of Mumbai’s mangrove forests. Chatterjee says Mumbai saw a 70% rise in recorded mangrove destruction court cases in the first nine months of last year, an indication the safeguards are working. 

Chatterjee also reported the state’s mangrove protection cell had claimed the increase in litigations was due to greater public awareness and a ramping up of the mangrove cell’s activities.

But, Goenka says the major problem facing Mumbai’s mangroves are applications from government departments themselves to destroy mangroves. It is a familiar fox and hen-house story.

One of the latest disputes over Mumbai’s wetland forests is at Juhu Koliwada Beach. The inner-city beach is home to a small plot of mangroves destroyed for the casting yard of the Versova-Bandra sea link.

Residents are not happy with the project. Local man Zoru Bhathena is making sure his voice is heard, litigating against the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) over the yard.

Bhathena, is not a lawyer or part of an NGO – just a one-man army fighting to save a spit of mangroves from his childhood.

Standing on the northern point of Juhu Beach, he laments how his childhood stomping ground has changed. Bhathena says he remembers a time when Juhu Beach had crystal-clean sand fringed with vegetation.

The five-hectare disputed area is on the northern end of Juhu-Koliwada beach.

Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) law mandates a 50m buffer between the mangroves and any development. 

There is no dispute MSRDC has acted according to the letter of the law when demarcating the casting yard boundary, now fenced off from rest of the beach. But, what Bhathena is accusing them of doing is creating an artificial sand dune, opposite the fence, to stop tidal water inundating their yard.

“How do you stop a swamp? Stop the water supply,” Bhathena said. “…the moment you stop water going, those mangroves are going to die.”

A business man for a hospital equipment manufacturing company, turned environmental crusader in his spare time, Bhathena says there was a spate of “environmental plunders” on the beach in 2018, including the attempt to stop the natural flow of water to the mangroves.

“This beach use to be full of vegetation, but since work first started back in February 2018, little vegetation remains,” he says pointing to Google Maps from May 12, 2018 that seem to show dark green vegetation.

“If you read Google Maps, this entire area [casting yard] is termed as a mangrove swamp,” he insists.

“However, no swamp or beach vegetation remains in the area. Some flow of water has been restricted, otherwise it would be a swamp like it is in the plan.” 

In December, Bhathena took the matter to the Bombay High Court, and even secured a two-week stay order on January 26, 2019, halting work at the casting yard pending further investigation. But while that stay order was in place the High Court allowed the State Road Development Corporation to cut 1585 mangrove trees to build the IND ₹11 332 crore (AU$2.3bn) Bandra-Versova sea link.

As for Bhathena’s patch of mangroves on Juhu Beach, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) gave the State Road Development Corporation a green light to continue with its casting yard. 

The state’s premier mangrove protection authority claims that despite the one-man activist’s claim, there are no mangroves on the disputed land. MSRDC managing director Radheshyam Mopalwar told the Mumbai press in March, “I can say 200 per cent that there were no mangroves on the plot. We are on the right side of the law.”

But the guardian of Juhu beach is still not ready to quit. “We will have to challenge this,” he told the Mumbai press. “For government projects, it appears that MCZMA has its own set of rules.”

“This casting yard can be made anywhere,” he argues, explaining the casting yard for the costal road sea link in South Mumbai is located on the other side of the city, in Navi Mumbai. 

For now, the future of mangroves on Juhu beach remain a matter for the courts to decide, but the idea of cutting off water supply to kill mangrove forests is not something new in Mumbai.

A Bombay Natural History Society report on the Jaigad Creek on the other side of the Mumbai peninsula shows, how a bund built in 1989 nearly killed off about 108 ha of wetland mangrove forests in just over two decades. Satellite images from 2013 show it is now a mere 35 ha fringe on the edge of the once lush Lagvan-Kasari-Satkondi mangrove patch.  

The report also cites two other mangroves patches under threat of being eradicated due to bund construction – a 2.5 km bund encircles approximately 75 ha of mangrove near Shirgaon on Sakhartar Creek, and the 1.5 km Shipole-Veswi bund threatens 35.5 ha of mangroves on Bankot Creek.

Sarita Fernandes, from the local Vanashakti conservationist group says another patch of mangrove forest is being slowly choked to death in the coastal suburb of Uran, in Navi Mumbai. She says the government built a sluice gate to control the flow of water into low-lying swampland, to protect small communities from future flooding. 

“After the floods of 2005, they decided that they would act to prevent any damage in future. However, the area chosen to protect had no flooding whatsoever,” Fernandes explains. 

“It has so many mangroves and wetlands, the water had plenty of places to recede. They went to a place that had no flooding, but had mangroves, and built a gate.”

Fernandes says the authorities closed the sluice gate in August 2017 during the height of the monsoon season, and didn’t open it until September 2018. 

“There is a common belief that mangroves will be fine just from paanee giran (water falling) from the sky, but mangroves don’t work like that,” she says explaining how mangroves need the tide to come in and out. 

Vanashakti claim the gates are part of a “long-term reclamation project” to slowly reclaim the area behind the gates.

Small pockets of wetland forests are one thing, but the true David and Goliath battle is taking place on the site of Mumbai’s new airport in Navi Mumbai.

Navi or ‘new’ Mumbai was envisioned in the the early 70s when the ever-increasing population pressure on Mumbai become apparent. The new city was not only going to support Mumbai’s growing population, but also become home to the city’s second international airport.

Experts estimate Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport will reach full capacity of 45 million passengers a year by 2021, when Navi Mumbai becomes operational.

Prof Sanjay Deshmukh said Ulwe in Navi Mumbai was selected as the location for the Navi Mumbai International Airport development project back in 1971, when City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) first conceived plans for a second airport.

That was two decades before the first Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) became law in 1991.

“There were mangroves, but at that time there was no CRZ preventing you from building over mangroves,” Prof Deshmukh explains. 

Prof Deshmukh has since worked alongside a team from the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to conduct a 2010 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the new airport.

He says the approval was subject to strict government guidelines and conditions, and notes the most significant of these was the obligation of developers to “compensate for the loss of the land and replant two times the original mangroves.”

Of the 2000-hectare plot earmarked for the airport about 165 hectares was covered by wetland mangrove forests – today none of them remain. What was once a teeming wetland swamp covered in mangroves, is now a dust covered barren waste land.

According to the 2010 EIA, CIDCO had planned to reforest 350 hectares of mangroves around the Dahanu area, as compensation for the 161.50 hectares destroyed in the construction of the airport. 

But decades later it seems the authorities are still looking for an appropriate location to replant.

“Nobody is shying away from the fact that compensatory plantation has to take place. Not the government or CIDCO,” Prof Deshmukh says.

He claims the issue with replanting mangroves is finding an area that is conducive for their growth, and under the influence of tidal water, and with land in such short supply in Mumbai, there is hardly any areas under government ownership which can be taken up for compensatory planting.

He says certain private land owners may allow to CIDCO to go for compensatory planation on their land but perhaps the more practical answer is in reaching out to neighbouring state of Gujrat.

He avoids being drawn in to a conversation about how the experts who signed-off on the environmental assessments in the first place didn’t foresee the impractically of replanting mangroves in Mumbai let alone twice as many as what was destroyed.

Local conservationists who closely work with mangrove habitats claim the 2010 Environmental Impact Assessment had also grossly downplayed the extent of mangrove cover, and alleges the government leant on the team to claim the mangrove coverage was ‘stunted’ and ‘sparse’ and that the forests had been taken over by salt tolerant grasses where the mangrove had degraded. 

“This was wrong. There was a very good forest of mangrove, but the government forced the surveyors to do the changes,” they claim.

Few scientists are prepared to go on record and the allegations remain unsubstantiated. But, Sarita Fernandes, from Vanashakti explains that falsifying EIA reports are “very common” due to the “loopholed” nature of their guidelines. 

“I can do an EIA assessment. Anyone can stand up and say I want an EIA done,” Fernandes says. “You just need the right political power behind you, contacts and money.”

This is where Environmental lobbyists and NGOs like Vanashakti come in. 

When a new project declares that the EIA has been approved and there is no significant ecological impact, NGOs will request a review of the EIA report and show it to their team of experts to identify any discrepancies. If they find any issues, they will file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) case in court.

Vanashaktihas a small team of only two scientists, so they rely heavily on the support of other organisations and students.

“We have been partners with Godrej. When we find these EIA reports we show it to them, and they go through it,” Fernandes says, explaining marine biologists at Godrej assist in identify the “technical information” in the reports, such as the “marine biodiversity” errors.

“You need a lot of scientific basis when it comes to these cases.”

Mangrove activist Debi Goenka says he is extremely sceptical about the whole EIA process. 

“EIA consultants in this country are not paid to prepare an environmental report, but he is paid to get the environmental clearance, no matter what it takes” he says. 

“In my opinion, there are no reputable EIA consultants today in India, I am sorry to say that.”

However, the story of Mumbai’s wetlands isn’t all doom and gloom. The 2017 State of Forest report, the latest of its kind, claims mangrove coverage in Maharashtra has risen by 37% between 2015 and 2017 accounting for 82 sq km of wetland forest. The report said Mumbai suburbs had recorded a 33% rise in mangrove cover accounting for 16 sq km of growth in two years.

On one side of Navi Mumbai is Thane Creek a flourishing mangrove forest, that bears witness to the government report. Not too long ago, the area was going to be reclaimed for development, but, Vanashakti filed a successful PIL on the grounds the creek was home to an enormous number of seabirds, flamingos, and black egrets.

“We showed the biodiversity, went to the courts and they made it a sanctuary, and now it’s a flamingo park” Fernandes says.

Thane Creek Flamingo Park is one of Mumbai’s biggest attractions. People flock to the wetlands each day to see the city’s natural beauty.

But there is still a long way to go and the need for constant vigilance.

Dr Ritesh Vijay is a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute expert on sewage and water quality, and he fears the so-called resurgence of mangrove forests is in part the result of human intervention – this time the release of untreated sewage in to the Thane, Manori an Malad creeks. 

He warns the initial surge in mangrove growth due to sewage-enriched water is not sustainable and brings with it a raft of new problems. He claims if something is not done fast, the creeks will completely choke and become swamps. 

Mangrove activist Debi Goenka also warns against relying on government figures showing increased mangrove coverage, claiming the new growth is merely the result of more accurate and sensitive imaging. “The simple explanation is if you have more sophisticated imaging with smaller pixel size then you get more accurate results,” he says.

But he is confident Maharashtra is moving in the right direction. 

“Mangroves that were considered wasteland are now accepted as ecological valuable bio-diversity hotspots, and that is a huge step forward.” 

Ari Balle-Bowness is a final year journalism and photography student based in Brisbane. He has been involved in a number of pop-up news rooms including the Commonwealth Games and the Integrity20 conference. Mr Balle-Bowness has interned at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, worked as a journalist for Brisbane Times, The Source News, and The Wire. He was also part of a photo-documentary study tour to Cambodia in 2018, where he reported on how six non-governmental groups were rehabilitating young women who had been sex trafficked. (See LinkedIn)

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