Did wetland destruction cause the floods in Navi Mumbai?
A study by environment group Vanashakti revealed that 1,201 hectare has been reclaimed in 11 years
Over the past 11 years, wetlands in Navi Mumbai the size of 1,740 football fields have been lost to reclamation, said environment group Vanashakti in a report that also pointed out how such destruction and reclamation of land was one of the main reasons for flooding earlier this month in that area.
The 77-page report said wetland reclamation across 29 locations in Uran, Navi Mumbai over the past 11 years, destroyed 1,201 hectare of ecologically sensitive areas. This has happened despite a 2014 Bombay high court (HC) order banning reclamation and construction on wetlands, after Vanashakti filed a petition to protect them.
Wetlands work as sponges, trapping and releasing surface water and rain slowly. The roots of wetland trees and smaller vegetation slow the speed of flood waters hitting the plains. Extremely heavy rain between July 2 and July 3 led to flooding across nine villages in Uran — Kunde gaon, Bhendkhal, Pagote, Nawghar, Punde, Jaskhar, Karal, Jasai and Sonari. Flooding was also reported from several parts of Navi Mumbai. Most of these places are close areas that used to wetlands. “The report demonstrates the unfathomable destruction caused to wetland areas in the Navi Mumbai- Uran region, under the guise of infrastructure projects,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti and the author of the report. “The expanse of wetland reclamation reflects a gross violation and mockery of court orders, with wetlands turning into dust bowls.”
The report identifies two reasons for the rise in reclamation — blockages of creeks and tidal sources for the Navi Mumbai International Ariport project site, and reclamation by Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) for container ports, terminals and roads. The report was collated using satellite images to study the periodic changes in land area (see box) collected between 2008 and 2019. This was verified through on-ground site visits.
Maximum wetland areas lost in Uran included Sawarkhar (201 hectare), Jashkar (187 hectare), Varcha Owle and Pargaon (128 hectare), Sonari (103 hectare), Ulwe (90.3 hectare), Vaghivali, near the proposed Navi Mumbai International Airport site (77.2 hectare), and Karal (70.4 hectare), among other spots.
Both JNPT and the Raigad district administration said they need to first see the report before they comment. “We have identified 131 wetlands in Raigad, and some areas fall in Uran. We will check if reclaimed areas fall in newly identified wetland sites. Wherever there are violations, strict action will be taken,” said Padmashri Bainade, resident deputy collector, Raigad. Raigad collector Vijay Suryawanshi refused to comment.
Neenu Somraj, member secretary, HC-appointed wetland committee said, “There is currently a status quo on any construction or reclamation activity in Uran until the previous violation cases are closed. The report will be discussed at length with Raigad district administration and state agencies during our next meeting at the end of the month.” The report will be submitted before the HC during the next hearing scheduled later this month and the HC-appointed state wetland committee.
The reason wetland reclamation has happened, despite the HC order, is probably because the Union environment ministry, in of September 2017, notified new wetland rules, replacing the 2010 version. The new rules do not categorise wetlands as coastal regulation zone (CRZ) areas, which means less protection. The state government stopped demarcating coastal wetlands, paving the way for their reclamation and destruction.