As Mumbai gears up for yet more meaningless development, citizens can bid adieu to the wetlands that have protected their health and property for decades.

The lack of value that India has shown thus far to her wetlands will only succeed in further degrading our environmental and public health. Wetlands in India are comprised of mangrove forests along peninsular India, salt pans in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the backwaters of Kerala, freshwater and saltwater lakes, and shallow riverine systems. The world’s largest mangrove ecosystem is found on the border of India and Bangladesh – the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Ramsar wetland. Despite their wide geographical spread and many types, wetlands are India’s most threatened ecosystem. A loss of vegetation, salinisation, excessive inundation, invasive species, excessive development, linear infrastructure, and water pollution have all caused damage – sometimes irreversible – to these unique, vital ecosystems.

Mumbai’s mangrove forests along its creeks and rivers (Times of India)

Mumbai is no different. As development continues to forge a concrete path through natural ecosystems in the outskirts of the city, we run the risk of further ruining the services provided to us by our environment – clean air, clean water, fertile land, mesmerizing wildlife, and protection against the elements. In a coastal city such as Mumbai, built upon reclaimed land, dense mangrove forests along the coastline historically provided protection against tidal surges and inland flooding. Mangroves along the Mithi River and Mahim Creek, too, trap silt and strengthen riverbanks and prevent flooding in the monsoon season. They also serve as habitat for a variety of aquatic species and reduce the pollutant and sediment loads in the water. But land is expensive in Mumbai, and mangroves are often on prime, seaside land that is eyed by developers for airports (Navi Mumbai, we are looking at you!) and for expanding residential setups. Only a few patches of intact mangrove forest remain in Mumbai today – the Vikhroli mangroves, along Thane Creek, and along Vasai creek.

The root system of a mangrove spread out in all directions (Google)

Vasai is home to most of Mumbai’s remaining wetlands, but it is no longer safe from development. This election season, the latest brilliant plan by the MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region) is to build a “growth centre” on 1,560 acres (630 hectares) of salt pans in Vasai. This vague “growth centre” will entail residential townships, a healthcare complex, education centres, a sports complex, entertainment hubs, and industries on what was, until 2016, land designated as a no-development zone. Essentially, the MMR would like to create an even newer Navi (New) Mumbai, and once again, wetlands will take a hit. The salt pans are a vital resting place for migratory birds, notably flamingoes, and serve as a sink for water during the monsoon, preventing rampant flooding. Additionally, the area is home to many tribal villages that follow a traditional environmentally-friendly way of life, as well as to the historic Vasai Fort.

Vasai’s wetlands are the last resting place for flamingos in Mumbai (Times of India 2018)

Why is development even considered in this region of cultural and natural importance?

Clearly, the MMR has not quite understood the repercussions of rampant, haphazard development in a coastal zone prone to inland flooding. If the 2005 and 2017 floods were not enough of a shock, perhaps our government ought to wait until the next big disaster before claiming that such “freak” incidences have nothing to do with environmental degradation. If science and the opinion of the public have no impact on governmental and developmental decisions, then exactly how can we say we live in a democracy? Where do we draw the line between necessary development and unnecessary environmental damage?

The citizens of Vasai have already come together to protest the development of Vasai’s beautiful wetlands. Not only are these wetlands home to a plethora of rare, endemic species, but they also protect the region from natural disasters and clean pollutants from the water. These wetlands, and the people who depend upon their ecosystem services, deserve their right to life. But will development grant them a respite?

Save our wetlands (The Hindustan Times)

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