World Wetlands Day: Construction equals destruction

Bullet train, coastal roads pose biggest threats


February 8, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

World Wetlands Day: Construction equals destruction

The 508 km bullet train route linking Mumbai to Ahmedabad is likely to destroy or at least seriously impact 55,000 mangroves

Last week India marked the World Wetlands Day with the usual pledges of protecting these crucial ecosystems safe and regenerate them. The ground reality, however, is sharply different as India leads the world in loss of wetlands, with disastrous consequences for its biodiversity.

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Mumbai Coastal Road and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train. Two of the most high-profile and highly controversial projects in Mumbai have one thing in common, besides extra-large budgets. Both pose severe threat to the bustling metropolis’ once thriving wetlands, which are now facing an existential crisis.

The INR 1.1 trillion 508 km bullet train route linking Mumbai to Ahmedabad is likely to destroy or at least seriously impact 55,000 mangroves, the most common wetlands found in and around Mumbai. Large chunks of mangroves would be filled up for building two important railway stations, one, the terminal building in Bandra Kurla complex and the other is the Thane railway station. Even though the Maharashtra government says it is trying to reduce the impact on mangroves by realigning designs of the Thane station, the overall impact on mangroves is likely to be catastrophic, as several environmental activists have already cautioned.

The INR 140 billion high-speed expressway called the Coastal Road, the most expensive freeway ever built in the country, will require reclamation of 168 hectares of land and will extensively damage the ecosystem all along Mumbai through excavation of beaches and destruction of mangroves, construction of roads within creeks and drilling of the seabed to construct underwater tunnels which will adversely affect the marine ecology of the city. Experts cite the example of recurring floods in the Mahim bay after extensive reclamation of land for construction of Bandra-Worli Sea Link over a decade ago. They say that the Coastal Road will recreate that natural havoc on a much larger scale and impact many more parts of the metropolis. Even where it stands on stilts, it will destroy mangroves due to construction and the road will block sunlight, impacting the living animals in the wetlands.

Even before the two projects, a report by Wetlands International South Asia (WISA) said that Mumbai was racing towards total destruction of its once-rich wetlands ecosystem as the country’s financial capital has already lost 71 pc of its wetlands in 44 years, from 1970 to 2014. The picture all over India, though not as stark as in Mumbai, is equally worrying.

The WISA report says that India has lost nearly one-third of its natural wetlands to urbanisation, agricultural expansion and pollution over the same period. For instance, Ahmedabad has lost 57 pc, Bengaluru 56 pc, Hyderabad 55 pc, Delhi and National Capital Region 38 pc and Pune 37 pc. WISA says its report is based on analysis of satellite images and land and ground data of 22 cities and towns.

Mangroves are key to cities as they not only keep the ecosystem vibrant and healthy but also help prevent flooding and work as a wall of defence in coastal areas. Destruction of mangroves can leave coastal areas exposed and vulnerable to natural disasters.

Natural wetlands are permanently or seasonally saturated in water and create habitats for aquatic plants. They retain large volumes of water and their slow release makes them important for combatting extreme weather conditions like floods and droughts. Wetlands also contribute to water purification, water regulation, biodiversity, aesthetics and recreation, according to the United Nations.

In India, the wetlands account for an estimated area of 15.26 million hectares i.e., equivalent to 4.63 pc of the country’s geographical area. These are protected under the Ramsar Convention, signed by India in 1982. Under the Ramsar convention, India hosts 37 wetlands of international importance, with the Sundarbans, stretching to over 4,230 sq km, being one of the largest such sites in the world. These wetlands are home to over 5,000 species of flora and fauna. They represent at least 23 pc reptiles, 13 pc amphibians, 23 pc fish, 65 pc birds and 26 pc of mammalian species in the country, according to environment ministry.

India also hosts a diverse variety of wetlands, among these, some of the most prominent ones found are in the floodplains of rivers like Ganga and Brahmaputra, in the high-altitude regions of the Himalayas, lagoons and mangrove marshes on the coastline.

However, all of these are now seriously threatened, mainly due man-made reasons, but some also face threats due to climate change and global warming, as it has led to erratic rainfall in wetlands and leading to drying of lakes and several mangroves.

Ritesh Kumar, director of WISA, says that wetland loss is not just a biodiversity crisis but also a development crisis manifesting into increased water, food and climate insecurity. “An ecosystem health assessment of wetlands under a 100-day programme of the Centre indicated that one in every four wetlands had low to a very low ecosystem health and high to very high threats,” he says. A draft report of the environment ministry lists 42 of the 100 top wetlands in the country in high-risk category facing threat from encroachment and high human interference.

Yet, the government is doing little to protect them, leave alone regenerating the ones that have been seriously damaged or destroyed. Though the environment ministry has published guidelines for wetland conservation across India including prohibiting setting up of industries near wetlands and disposal of construction waste into them, there is little implementation or monitoring. Only a handful of states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have taken up wetland conservation enthusiastically, say environmental activists, pointing at the urgent need for the rest of the country to follow suit.



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