24 February 2012

Halting the pink tide:

The Sewri mudflats in Mumbai, home to a rich biodiversity, including flamingoes, is under threat from a development project.

IT is low tide and the mess of humanity is on full display on the mudflats at Sewri in Mumbai. Tin cans, bottles, torn fishing nets, waste oil and, of course, the ubiquitous polythene bags make the landscape an industrial wasteland. In the far distance are signs of heavy industry – chimneys of oil refineries and a power station. The middle ground is an expanse of grey sea bobbing with rafts of rubbish from the urbanised coast. The foreground has mangroves festooned with plastic bags and rags. On the jetty, it is business as usual for the small ship-breaking industry. Metal clangs against metal as hammers rise and fall, and workers shout above the sound of roaring motors and hissing acetylene torches.

A ship slated for demolition frames a flamingo flock on the Sewri mudflats in central Mumbai. The long-legged, pink birds are annual winter migrants to this shallow wetland

Expertly sidestepping the rubbish and seemingly oblivious to the noise are flocks of birds which are feeding busily. Treading lightly on the mudflats, they pick up molluscs, crustaceans, mudskippers, worms, algae, seaweed, and so on. Life, it seems, can survive in this poisoned environment. Apart from the local avian residents such as pond herons, marsh sandpipers, little stints, common gulls and white-breasted kingfishers, there are the winter visitors – black-headed ibis, black-tailed godwits, purple herons, brown-headed gulls, eastern imperial eagle, curlews, whiskered terns and many such.

However, for the eager birdwatchers on the jetty, the star of this early morning show is undoubtedly the flock of tall, long-legged, pink birds about 300 metres away. Systematically working their way through the slush and sewage are the flocks of the greater and lesser flamingoes that the Mumbai coast attracts every year from Kutch or, perhaps, even Africa. A rough estimate by naturalists is that about 15 per cent of the lesser flamingo population in South Asia spends about six months of the year on the Sewri mudflats, a coastal wetland formed when mud is deposited by tides. That totals to about 15,000 birds. Most of these are the lesser flamingoes, or Phoeniconaias minor, a name that aptly translates as crimson water nymph since they are pinker than their cousins, the greater flamingoes, or Phoenicopterus roseus. Moving slowly, the flock feeds on the rich nutrients in this polluted marsh. Flamingoes are filter feeders, which explains why their graceful long necks continuously sway from side to side, their large beaks probing the mud and simultaneously sifting out what is not food.

A WESTERN REEF egret in an abandoned boat.
Despite their cesspool-like nature, the Sewri mudflats continue to sustain an amazing biodiversity. There are more than 150 bird species, including the winter migrants. The annual total wader count (distribution of wading birds) is about 500,000 birds. BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation organisations working for the world's birds and people, has designated the Sewri mudflats as an Important Bird Area and has also identified it as a potential Ramsar site (wetlands of international importance). The mudflats are also home to 53 species of vascular plants, 10 mangrove species and 13 mangrove-associate species as well as many types of crustaceans, molluscs and algae.

Ideal spot

Sewri, which is on the eastern seaboard of Mumbai, has been relatively untouched by the city's race for development. This is largely because it comes under the security blanket of the Port Trust. This is one reason why the mudflats are preserved to some extent though, undoubtedly, there were more mangroves and biodiversity earlier. Habitat losses have been mitigated because the environment has had some chance to adapt to changes.

An Egret waits for prey.
This slow development is also the reason why this part of central Mumbai continues to be a haven for birds like the flamingoes. It needs to be understood that the flamingoes did not randomly select the spot. The conditions in Sewri are ideal for the birds. The slight indentation in the coastline brings a degree of safety. The shallow mudflats make for easy feeding. Ironic, it may seem, but the human waste and nitrogen-rich organic pollutants from nearby industries promote the healthy growth of algae, which is the primary food of the flamingoes apart from small insects, crustaceans, molluscs, and small fish. This ideal combination is something that has occurred gradually over time and cannot be replicated. Therefore, the birds cannot be expected to resettle themselves a few kilometres north or south of their present location. It would not only be unrealistic but also unjust.

Sadly, however, the mudflats have come under threat from a Rs.8,500-crore mega project called the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link, a 22-km road-cum-sea bridge that will link Sewri on the Mumbai island to Nhava Sheva on the mainland. The six-lane road, 16.5 km of which will be a sea bridge, will also make provisions for an independent twin-track Metro in its second phase.

An Ibis near the murky waters
The Sewri-Nhava Sheva bridge has been in the pipeline for more than two decades. Now the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has resurrected the project by inviting applications for prequalification for the construction of the bridge. In the process, it has begun the countdown for the destruction of the mudflats and the flamingo haven.

As before, objections and compromise solutions to the project have been raised by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) but the MMRDA shows no signs of accepting them. Dr Asad Rahmani, the Director of the BNHS, said: “We are not against development, but at the same time, we want the environment to be protected. A realignment would save the flamingos and the mudflats, and the goal of development and conservation will be achieved.”

The BNHS had written to the MMRDA's Chief Engineer and suggested realigning the start of the bridge 700 m south of the proposed point. The MMRDA rejected it outright saying that a) there is no land available to realign the bridge, b) that any change will mean applying for fresh clearances and c) that all delays will mean an increase in costs.

But the fact is that land is usually made available when a government agency such as the MMRDA is involved, and fresh clearances should, in any case, be applied for because the project has been on and off for about two decades. The Environment Impact Assessment Report, for instance, is from 1992 and is outdated. Soaring project costs because of failed tendering over the years should not be a burden that the natural habitat has to bear.

Some people say that once the bridge is built the birds will return and the habitat will adapt as it has done before. But it is not just the chaos of the construction activity that will be disruptive. The bridge will alter the habitat drastically and suddenly. The construction will affect the tidal pattern, which in turn will affect the circulation and flow of water, siltation, drainage, configuration of the mudflats and, ultimately, the way life can or cannot be sustained. In its reply to the BNHS, the MMRDA has said that it will ensure that the environment is minimally impacted. But the assurance seems to be little more than paying lip service to the environment.

Source: Frontline. By LYLA BAVADAM

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