Flamingos face shrinking wetlands
Until not too long ago, the landscape around Uran, a fishing village in Navi Mumbai, was considered a bird-watching hotspot. During winter, large congregations of flamingos and other migratory birds could be seen along a 30km-long patchwork of wetlands at Uran’s Panje and Funde villages, south of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port.
Two years ago, flamingo numbers began to explode at a group of small water bodies located at the northern edge of this stretch – namely the TSC-NRI wetland complex near Palm Beach road in Belapur. This includes the Talawe wetland, which has yielded some of the most striking visuals of flamingos in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) in recent times – forsaking Uran’s wetlands.
“[Last year] people thought that there was a direct link between the Covid-19 lockdown and the explosion of flamingo numbers at TSC-NRI. People seemed to think that the birds were perhaps undisturbed for the first time due to the reduction in human activity,” said Adesh Shivkar, a veteran birder who has been tracking avian biodiversity in MMR for over 20 years.
But the lockdown isn’t really why the flamingos seem to have shifted base.
The network of wetlands in Navi Mumbai serve largely as the roosting grounds for flamingos and other waders, who fly over from their feeding grounds in Thane Creek during high tide. Local residents and environmental experts said that Uran’s wetlands have been systemically reclaimed and dried out, as dumping of mud and construction debris into water bodies and mangrove swamps has been a regular occurrence in the area for about a decade.
In an interim report submitted to the state forest department last year, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) noted, “Panje was one of the larger wetlands (which) used to support a huge population of migratory birds. Now, as Panje is disturbed due to inconstant water flow, it can be assumed that the avifauna that was coming to Panje might have started using the other suitable sites.”
The interim report is part of a decade-long bird-monitoring study that the BNHS was commissioned to do in 2017 after construction began on the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) bridge to connect Sewri and Uran. Part of the mandate of the study is to create a conservation blueprint for the Thane Creek over which this bridge will come up, which will ensure that the habitats of flamingos thrive. Environmentalists say that such a study should have already happened – in the absence of it, we still don’t know how habitats are affected by pollutants or construction. For instance, the flamingo numbers in Sewri and Nhava are reportedly still high though construction of the MTHL is underway in those areas.
At least four major wetlands -- Panje, Belpada, Bhendkhal and Dastan Phata -- have been completely dried out, either through dumping of mud or through willful stoppage of intertidal waters by authorities. The City Industrial Development Corporation (Cidco), for example, had halted the flow of water to Panje by shutting off the sluice gates in its flood control barrier. These were later opened after a High Court order, but there are still four tidal inlets to the wetland which remain blocked (in violation of recent instructions to Cidco by the National Green Tribunal).
The Cidco spokesperson did not respond to calls and messages on questions about inlets.
At Panje, the largest of these water bodies (covering an area of at least 120 hectares),barely a dozen flamingos roosted in a small pool of accumulated rainwater at the start of the month. “This is a far cry from the situation a few years ago. Had you visited, say, in 2008 or even as late as 2015, you would have seen thousands of them,” said Dilip Koli, a resident of Uran, who is associated with the Paaramparik Machhimar Bachao Kruti Samiti, a local fishworkers unions.
“There was a point when we could throw our nets here and catch fish. Now there is not even enough water for the birds,” Koli said.
Reports have documented the loss of Uran’s wetlands too. A 2019 BNHS report titled ‘Coastal Wetlands and Waterbirds of Navi Mumbai’ for example, noted that the water spread of Belpada wetland reduced from 147.98 hectares (ha) in 1973 to just 53 ha in 2018. Simultaneously, the area of human settlements around the water body increased tenfold during the same time period, from 128 ha to 1,280 ha.
A similar trend was observed at the nearby Bhendkal wetland, where the water spread reduced from 173 ha in 1973 to 89 ha in 2018. Human habitation in the vicinity of this water body also increased during this period, from 106 ha to 833 ha. Experts emphasized that this is in clear violation of Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) guidelines, which prohibit construction over wetlands.
“The coastal inlets which ensure perennial flow of water to these wetlands have been completely buried, or blocked,” Koli said, saying this also worsened unseasonal flooding in Uran, particularly over the past two years.
The ecological importance of these wetlands, particularly with respect to migratory birds, has been acknowledged by the state government. More than five years have passed since the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) approved the declaration over 1,600 acres of wetlands in Mumbai, Raigad and Thane districts as bird sanctuaries, with the express intent of protecting flamingos and other migratory shorebirds. These included the wetlands of Panje-Funde and TSC-NRI, as well as Sewi-Mahul on the city’s eastern waterfront.
The decision was formally announced on December 4, 2015, by the office of the then CM, Devendra Fadnavis, and came on the back of a suggestion by the BNHS earlier that year, in response to the MTHL project. To mitigate possible adverse impact, the BNHS had emphasized on the need to protect so called “satellite wetlands” around Thane Creek, including the TSC-NRI wetland in Navi Mumbai (Thane), and Panje-Funde in Uran (Raigad).
“There is a need to give protected status to the wetlands of southern Mumbai... especially, the Uran mudflats, and the NRI-TSC wetlands, Panje-Funde wetlands,” the BNHS had noted at the time, in a report to the MMRDA. But despite the state government’s initial willingness to bring these areas under protection of the Wildlife Act (1972), the SBWL’s 2015 proposal never saw the light of day. The Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary, declared in 2015, has been criticized for not including some of the most prime flamingo habitats within its 1,690 hectares delineation.
Last June, the Maharashtra forest department approved and published an official document showing six ecologically sensitive areas in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) as wetlands, as part of a 10-year management plan for the Thane creek flamingo sanctuary (TCFS). Six sites – Bhandup (11 ha) in Mumbai, Panje (124 ha), Belpada (30 ha), Bhendkhal (8 ha) in Uran, Training Ship Chanakya (13 ha) and NRI Complex (19 ha) in Navi Mumbai – were designated officially as wetlands.
Then, in July 2020, forest department wrote to the Cidco and the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) -- who own the land on which this network of wetlands is located -- seeking their comments on declaring these six water bodies as Conservation Reserves under the Indian Wildlife Act, which would deter any further development around them.
Cidco and JNPT have both since rejected this proposal.
In a response to the forest department, CIDCO wrote that these sites “are developable land parcels” which “do not qualify to be declared as wetlands.” Cidco is also currently fighting a Bombay High Court order which restricts it from developing the TSC-NRI wetlands into an 80 hectare golf course and residential complex.
“In light of the MTHL project, the importance of these satellite wetlands cannot be emphasized enough. The bridge across Thane Creek itself may not pose a threat to the future of these birds, but the destruction of these satellite wetlands certainly does,” said Mrugank Prabhu, a researcher at BNHS currently working on a long-term study on flamingoes and other migratory birds in Thane Creek and Navi Mumbai.
“Recently, a greater sand-plover tagged three years ago by the BNHS was found at Panje, after the overflow of tidal water during the Super Moon period in April. This demonstrates the fact that migratory birds show a high degree of site fidelity tendency, which is their preference for returning to the old places that they are used to. There has been a definite noticeable pattern in the bird flights that we have been noticing over the past couple of years – no flamingos in Uran, and lots of them in Talawe wetlands and DPS Lake. This is worrisome,” said BN Kumar, an environmentalist with the Navi Mumbai-based NatConnect Foundation, who has been documenting the destruction of Uran’s wetlands for nearly a decade.