A Creek in Crisis


30th December, 2020

Written by Sasha Shinde

Artwork by Rachel Mathew

On the 20th of December, concerned citizens of Thane, along with NGOs organized a cleanup drive, ‘Clean the Creek’ at the Kolshet subsidiary of Thane Creek. A press note released by the organisers stated that one of the main reasons for the drive was to draw the attention of the governing bodies and call out their inaction when it comes to the growing concrete jungle in the name of beautification, subsequently resulting in the destruction of mangroves in the area. It also aimed to raise awareness among citizens about the prevalence of this issue.

Muse Foundation, along with Kolshet Gaav Utkarsh Samajik Sanstha, and Thane City Gaavthan Koliwade Paade Sanvardhan Samiti organised this drive that had around 35 participants, including students, locals, and nearby villagers. 

Thane Creek is stretched over a distance of over 26 km (making it the largest creek in Asia) from the Mumbai Port and the Jawaharlal Nehru Port in the south to the Ulhas River in the north. In 2017, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) petitioned to have Thane Creek recognized as a Ramsar site, which means that it would become a wetland of international significance (according to the 1971 Ramsar convention that took place in Iran). 

Thane Creek is home to rich biodiversity in flora and fauna, and is the second largest natural area in Mumbai and its vicinity, only after Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Thane Creek is home to rich biodiversity in flora and fauna, and is the second largest natural area in Mumbai and its vicinity, only after Sanjay Gandhi National Park. As reported in Hindustan Times, “Studies by groups like Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History and BN Bandodkar College of Science, Thane and BNHS have found that the creek is home to more than 160 bird species and nine species of mangrove trees, besides fish, crustaceans and insects.” 

Having this in mind, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary was launched on 1st February, 2018, across Bhandup, Mulund, Kanjurmarg, Vikhroli, and Mandale, over an area of 16 sq km. The area is home to about 40,000 flamingos for close to six months, apart from being a wintertime haven for migratory birds including Pied Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Common Redshanks, stints, and sand plovers.  

More flamingos, more trouble

The number of flamingos migrating to the city has increased by up to 25% this year over last year, owing to fewer human activities. It was a scene to behold; a pink ocean enveloping the wetland regions, with thousands of flamingos roosting, undisturbed by pesky humans. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s because it was.

In 2019, the number of flamingos had increased three times from about 30,000-40,000 to 1.2 lakhs. One would think that an increase in the population of flamingos is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The reason the population of flamingos increased last year was not because the area of the mangroves increased, or even because the environment of the wetlands suddenly became cleaner. On the contrary, it actually meant that the water where the flamingos nest had become more polluted.

Hemant Karkhanis, researcher and mangrove expert, who has worked on Thane Creek for the past 21 years, explains, “The number of flamingos is increasing because they are getting abundant food in the form of algae and crustaceans there (at Thane Creek). This is happening due to an increase in the organic matter in the form of untreated sewage, and other pollutants being released into the water. So, more flamingos actually means that more pollution is taking place.” 

He adds that if flamingos and other birds continue to feed on organisms which grow in polluted water, their breeding behaviour and migratory pattern will get affected. This was already seen this year, with the arrival of the flamingos in the Mumbai Metropolitan region being delayed. 

The Waterfront Development Project

As a part of the Thane Smartcity initiative, the Thane Municipal Corporation (hereafter referred to as TMC) proposed the waterfront beautification project which extends up to 10.58km, covering eight areas — Kopri-Mithbunder, Gaikmukh, Kavesar-Waghbil, Saket-Balkum, Nagla bunder, Kolshet, Parsik-Retibunder, and Kalwa-Shastrinagar. The plan was first proposed in 2010 and construction commenced in 2017. It ran into its fair share of problems earlier, with concerns arising over displacement of locals and their rehabilitation.

Recently, the principal secretary of the state environment department; State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA); Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA); the mangrove cell of the forest department; and TMC which were involved in the waterfront project have been sent legal notice for Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations. The TMC said that though there was debris accumulation, it was being cleared following the complaint, and that the areas were ‘protected’.

“All big waterfront plans for the beautification of the creek cause distress to the environment and this is done officially,” says Girish Salgaonkar, environmental activist and president of Thane Gaonthan Koliwada Conservation Committee. “If the same was done by ordinary citizens, they would be charged with violations of CRZ. But when governments do this, they have certain terms and conditions for obtaining permissions. It is sold to everyone as being for the greater good, allowing the CRZ regulations to be overlooked for the same.”

“People can see a rose shrub, coconut tree, etc. outside their window, but not mangroves.” elucidates Karkhanis. “If they can’t put its flower in their hair or eat its fruit, they don’t understand why it matters.”

The waterfront is not something that was asked for by the people living in Thane. Salgoankar indicates that the waterfront is often used as a marketing tactic by builder lobbies to sell property. A study done by Muse Foundation using satellite images found that the green cover of Kolshet Creek shrunk by 9.43 hectares due to debris dumping, encroachment, dumping of plastic and other hazardous waste. 

The stakeholders

Anthropogenic activities and a lack of strict implementation of CRZ have had several negative impacts on the environment, of which not all are apparent. The depleting mangrove cover in certain parts of Navi Mumbai and Thane owing to encroachment, and indiscrete dumping of debris in protected areas is concerning due to many reasons.

Thane Creek had a thriving fishing trade, but has had a reduction in the number of species in the last few years. There were 18-20 edible species of fishes around twenty-five years ago; today there are only about 3-4. “The next generation of fisher-folk is reluctant to get into fishing, despite this being their profession for almost three generations,” says Karkhanis. “That’s because there simply aren’t enough fish left! How would they (fishing communities) survive?”

Vinod Dhargalkar, Executive Secretary of Mangrove Society of India, suggests that fishing communities, along with other native residents get involved in conservation efforts, and cites Goa as an example for the same. Replanting and afforestation of mangroves could serve as a secondary income for generational fisher-folk, he proposes, while stressing on the importance of combining traditional and modern techniques to ensure successful preservation of the environment. 

“We (Mangrove Society of India) were involved with the re-afforestation of the mangroves due to the bullet train line construction. We can guide the fishermen through the technicalities of it, but they should consider forming nurseries of mangrove plants to grow them up to a height of 1m, before replanting them in the marshes,” he says. 

But why should you and I care?

Unless people see visible consequences (and sometimes even then), they find it very difficult to be bothered about any issue, especially one related to the environment. The benefits of mangroves are manifold, and to experts it must seem exasperating to see the disinterest of ordinary citizens. “People can see a rose shrub, coconut tree, etc. outside their window, but not mangroves.” elucidates Karkhanis. “If they can’t put its flower in their hair or eat its fruit, they don’t understand why it matters.”

In 2004, a tsunami threatened to destroy Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district. A thick network of roots and near impenetrable growth of the mangroves prevented an exacerbation of the destruction. In fact, a2014 study proved the buffering function of mangroves, especially in case of the tsunami, having reduced the height of the tidal waves by 50%.

Mangroves have been found to be ‘carbon sinks’ for their affinity to store 7-8 times the carbon in their leaves that other plants can. They sequester carbon directly from the atmosphere and purify the air. “A recent study even found that clearing of mangroves causes the carbon stored to react with atmospheric oxygen to create carbon dioxide again,” adds Dhargalkar.

All three experts emphasize the importance of raising awareness among people. “Some organisations, like the Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre at Airoli, and Godrej Mangroves are doing their bit in bridging the gap between citizens and mangroves. Getting schools and colleges involved is important and ecotourism to spread awareness works really well,” Karkhanis says, adding that no one who has read about mangroves would discount their importance.

Even seemingly futile steps like the cleanup drive at Kolshet Creek help raise awareness in their own way.

All the effort for the drive may seem ineffective , especially since it will get polluted again, rubbish will gather again, and debris will be dumped there again. But if nothing is done, we may be well on our way to completely losing the rich natural biodiversity within Thane Creek.