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Significance of Mangroves
Anish Andheria on why mangrove forests are important
Over the past decade or so, Mumbai has lost about 40% of its mangroves due to reclamation, encroachment, and garbage dumping, among other causes. But patches of this resilient plant species still exist, in the Thane and Vasai creeks, and in Mahim, Versova and Gorai. While many commuters are likely to see this unique form of plant life every day, few have a proper understanding of their ecological value to the city.
One of the longest and best-preserved mangrove forests within the city are near the Godrej headquarters in Vikhroli. Last week, ahead of World Environment Day, the Godrej Culture Lab hosted a talk by wildlife photographer Anish Andheria, about how mangroves are one of the city’s major green lungs. Mr. Andheria is president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, and a member of the Maharashtra State board of wildlife.
Mangroves, Mr. Andheria said, are particularly vulnerable because they grow on the interface between land and sea, which is also where ports are built. Major financial capitals also come up on the coast and Mumbai is one of them. “Back when Mumbai was seven islands, all of the islands were surrounded by mangroves.” He said. “The mangrove forests were home to some of the largest reptilians on earth like the salt water crocodile.”
There are now only 11 true species of mangroves left in Mumbai. Neverthless, Mr. Andheria said, we are lucky that despite being in a sprawling, polluted city, these stretches of mangroves still give people an opportunity to experience wildlife. He mentioned jackals as an example; once a common sight, their numbers have fallen 85%, but you can still find them in the mangroves.
Aside from being home to a large variety of aquatic life and animal species, mangroves are great land-building machines. “There are only two organism that can build land: mangroves and corals. The sea erodes land constantly, and these organisms hold the land in place.” Mangroves, Mr. Andheria said, thrive in the toughest soil conditions and can filter out the salt from sea water. When water from rivers flows into the sea, mangroves that hold the sediment and keep it from being washed away. The water around them therefore is highly nutritious and an ideal breeding ground for various varieties of fish. Their role as nurseries for fish make them crucial to communities like the Kolis, who depend on the mangroves for subsistence, even worshipping them.
Mangroves, Mr. Andheria said, also protect against flooding and natural disasters. “Simply because, by default, their presence means that people would have to live at least a kilometre away from the coast and that could save a lot of lives.”
Marshland also hold 25 times more carbon than normal soil. “When a building comes up for which mangroves need to be destroyed, what people don’t realise is that by removing them you are releasing carbon into the atmosphere that had been stored in them for thousands of years.”
Mangroves also help control pollution as filter out a lot of toxins released into the water by factories; current reports, though, indicate that the toxic load now being released is six-and-a-half times more than they can absorb.
There are myriad reasons, such as the reclamation of land and cutting the mangrove trees for wood, that are slowly depleting mangrove forests in Mumbai. Most important, Mr. Andheria said, was a lack of awareness among citizens about the importance of mangroves. He urged the audience to work with each other and the government to address this gap and spread the message about the importance of mangroves and the range of wildlife that they support.
Cyclone Aila and after
Sabita Sardar, Malina, Malati Haldar and scores of other womenfolk in Garankhatti village in the Sundarbans had watched with horror as Cyclone Aila washed away their homes and fields on May 25, 2009. Eight years on, they are part of the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS), an agency working with some 18,000 local women to regenerate mangroves over 5,000 hectares of land in the Sundarbans. The aim is to revive mangroves as a 'bio-shield' against the vagaries of the high tides.
Before Aila, NEWS was working with funds from the British government on a small project over 100 hectares of land in Mathurakhand in 2007-2008. The scope of their work increased dramatically after the cyclone. Garankhatti and Sonagaon, two villages worst hit by Aila, had virtually no mangrove plantations. So when the cyclone struck, back flows of seawater into the Matla and other rivers in the area inundated the entire area. An estimated 80,000 people lost their homes. "The damage of Aila is a festering memory for them. So it wasn't difficult to rope in the locals, especially women, to join us," says Ajanta Dey, programme director at NEWS.
The locals plant saplings and watch over them as they grow. Woman workers are paid 0.20 paise to Rs 1.50 for a seed and Rs 3.50 per sapling grown in home nurseries. Women mangrove sevaks are paid Rs 3,000 a month to guard the plants.
"Initially, the villagers signed up as it was an income-generating proposition," says Dey, adding that over time they understood that it would also be protection for their homes. Regenerating 20,000 sq. km of the Sundarbans delta needed equally generous funding. Danone, a French-owned global food company on the lookout for carbon-neutralising and carbon-offsetting strategies, tied up with 11 other French corporate entities to fund the project. With global majors like Schneider Electric, Hermes, SAP etc, they established 'Livelihoods'.
Launched in 2010, the project has already brought 5,000 hectares of the delta plains-from Raimangal to Sagar-under mangrove cultivation. That's 16 million plants, which add up to a most impressive 14 per cent increase in the area under mangroves.
NEWS is now collaborating with a German company, Global Nature Fund, to link the mangrove planters to smart, climate-integrated family farming. Explaining the concept, Dey says: "Those who take an active part in protecting the mangroves will get start-up assistance to develop organic and poultry farms on land close to their homes."