Mumbai's mangroves are key to urban resiliency
Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai has 149 kilometers of coastline — an enormous asset but also one of the city's greatest vulnerabilities. After the 2004 tsunami that caused widespread devastation across Southeast Asia, coastal cities began to reevaluate their resiliency in the face of another major storm. Areas that weathered the tsunami best were those with thriving mangroves, a natural buffer between the land and sea. Mangroves protect the "assault of the sea on land," according to the Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Marine Ecology Centre, which supported the protection of Mumbai's mangroves. The Centre describes these vibrantly diverse ecosystems as "more dynamic than the sea itself."
However, the city's natural coastal protector has been under severe threat in recent decades. "It has been estimated that Mumbai lost about 40 percent of its mangrove between 1995 and 2005," says a recent article on the mangroves. The destruction of the rich forest and estuaries started during the British era when the mangroves were being chopped down and filled in to reclaim land. In the ever-growing Mumbai of today, the rapid deterioration of these important natural barriers has continued. The article says the mangroves are now being lost to all the major development in the city — "golf courses, amusement parks, sewage and garbage dumps, buildings, and other modern structures like the Bandra-Worli Sea-Link."
One of the cities well-known group of environmental activists, Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), led the way in protecting urban mangroves. The rich forest and estuaries, which not only act as coastal barriers but also as breeding grounds for a wide variety of fish, came under the protection of the state after a Supreme Court order was passed in 2006. The order has helped preserve these vital ecosystems, and Mumbai and surrounding areas now have 5,800 hectares of mangrove land designated as protected forests and 26,000 hectares of coastal land in the state has also been identified to come under the Court's protection. The move is not only smart resiliency planning, but can also be considered good economics. "Healthy mangrove forests can be valued anywhere between $2000-9000 per hectare," says an article that argues that saving the mangroves actually saves the city coffers as well. "By preserving mangrove forests, the city of Mumbai has saved itself about $52 million every year."
Mumbai's fisherman, the Kolis — known as the native people of Mumbai — have also begun to understand the connection between the mangroves and their fishing livelihoods. In response, a group of Mumbai fisherman formed an NGO called Sree Ekvira Pratisthan to protect more than 1,000 hectares of mangroves in their area northern area of the city. The organization educates other fisherman on the importance of the mangroves and fights to stop builders trying to prey on the mangrove's untouched land — valuable pockets in a land-starved city.
As "resiliency" becomes a key term in the age of global warming and more natural destruction is waged on some of the world's biggest cities — take Hurricane Sandy in NYC, for example — nature has provided many coastal cities with an important barrier. No technology can replicate what the mangroves do. Protecting these areas is one of the most important aspects to developing climate change resiliency in India's economic capital on the sea, and appropriate priority must be given to their importance in the urban landscape.
Photo credit: Senorhorst Jahnsen