Six years ago, the Bombay High Court made a monumental decision and passed an order to stop the destruction of mangrove forests. This decision was made a little after the 2004 tsunami that struck the eastern Indian coast and badly affected Indonesia and Sri Lanka. During that period, officials discovered that areas that had healthy mangrove forests and coral reefs, had stronger resistance to the wave’s power and faster recovery in its aftermath.
Mangroves not only act as a natural barrier against storms but are also important for carbon sequestration. They also act as nurseries for many species of fish, amphibians and aquatic life, making them essential for healthy fisheries. Mangrove forests also support a vast and diverse ecosystem of birds, animals and plants including species like the Bengal Tiger which is highly endangered. Unfortunately, mangroves are being cleared at unprecedented rates the world over. However, because of the conservation order, Mumbai and its neighbouring areas now boast of more than 5,800 hectares of mangrove land designated as protected forests.
The Times of India reported that this has already ensured more than 2,500 hectares of open green space in the city and its suburbs. A decade ago, these forest were cleared for living spaces but now they have been given a protected status and the Maharashtra government plans to extend the mangrove cover in the state in the coming years. More than 26,000 hectares of coastal land throughout the state has been identified for a similar status of protection. Through extensive satellite imagery, these forests were identified and special mangrove ‘cells’ were set up to oversee the protection of these forests.
The ecosystem services that mangroves provide is tremendous. Healthy mangrove forests can be valued anywhere between $2000-9000 per hectare. These forests act as natural sand berms and dykes against the tide and high waves apart from acting as carbon sinks. By preserving mangrove forests, the city of Mumbai has saved itself about $52 million every year.
The Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) played an instrumental role in protecting urban mangroves. They filed a public interest litigation suit in the high court to protect them. According to Debi Goenka of BEAG:
“To a large extent, land-grabbing in mangrove areas by unscrupulous builders in the city has stopped. This was the biggest threat to mangroves in urban areas. Earlier, though mangroves were under the purview of the Coastal Regulation Zone, the authorities were hardly bothered about protecting them. But the tag of forests has made it difficult for developers to obtain permission.”
Not only will protecting mangroves ensure better air quality and coastal protection for Mumbai, it will also serve to act as a big boost for the fishing community in the area for years to come.