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Mumbai – India’s financial capital, city of million dreams, the maximum city, and the city of mouth-watering vada pavs – is fast becoming India’s sinking city. Reports by several national and international think-tanks researching on climate change have indicated that most of Mumbai will be underwater by the turn of this century because of rising sea-levels, and a host of local environmental and policy issues.
How credible are these reports? What would a rise in sea level look like? What is the nature of threat to Mumbai? And who are the people at the receiving end of the problem?
Story of Mumbai and The Seven Islands
It’s the month of June and the western Indian city of Mumbai is gearing up for another erratic monsoon. Rains in Mumbai can be particularly tricky – it’s tough to predict when the ‘chai and pakoda’ weather will turn into a flood that will end up paralysing India’s business capital.
In a latest warning, the United Nations in its annual report on climate change has ranked Mumbai second among 20 largest coastal cities of the world which will incur major financial losses due to coastal flooding and sea-level rise. On rank one is the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
The roots of Mumbai’s climate problems can be traced back to its history as a colonial port city.
Mumbai, as we know it today, was once an archipelago of seven sleepy islands – Bombay, Parel, Mazgaon, Worli, Colaba, Mahim, and Old Woman’s Island also known as Little Colaba. These seven islands underwent a series of land reclamations in the 19th and the 20th century.
Embankments were built, hills were flattened, and the rubble dumped into marsh. It took over 200 years for Mumbai to become a continuous peninsula. These reclamations, however, happened at the cost of the city’s coastal ecosystems – the mangroves, mudflats, coral reefs, creeks, and estuaries.
Over the years, as Mumbai transformed into a thriving trade and business centre, it also became the centre of India’s climate crisis.
Being a coastal city, it is at the receiving end of global climate issues like melting glacial ice and rising sea temperatures. At the same time, factors like unplanned urbanisation, destruction of swamps and coastal areas, and an overburdened drainage system serve as reminders of the threats to India’s maximum city.
The Crisis in The Sea
In June 2021, one month after cyclone Tauktae hit the shores of Mumbai, Alauddin Khan along with his wife and two children, contemplated suicide. Khan lost his boat, his only source of livelihood, in the cyclone and is now under a debt exceeding Rs 5 lakh, that he has borrowed from his friends and local moneylenders.
"That storm came like a crisis for all fishermen in Mumbai. My boat was crushed, and 12-13 days after the tragedy I found myself completely shaken. I was concerned about the future of my children,” he says, as we sit outside his one room house in a slum near the Haji Ali Dargah.
Cyclone Tauktae was both unfortunate and unusual. As opposed to the sea of Bengal to the east, cyclones are uncommon in the Arabian Sea.
However, a study by Indian scientists published in 2021 states that the number of cyclones in the Arabian sea went up by 52 percent between 2001 and 2019 and the number of very severe cyclonic storms — like the one which destroyed Alauddin’s boat – went up by 150 percent.
“Currently, as we talk, there are cyclones forming along the west coast of India,” says Manas Ranjan Bahera, Associate Professor at the Interdisciplinary Department of Climate Studies at IIT-Bombay.
He attributes the rise in the number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea to rising sea-levels. “Typically, we say that the west coast doesn’t receive those many cyclones but in the context of global warming, rising temperatures and sea-levels, it is expected that there will be more cyclones in the Arabian Sea,” Professor Behera adds.
In the port town of Karanja on the outskirts of Mumbai, Ganesh Nakhawa – a fisheries entrepreneur – is worried. In 2011, Nakhawa left his job as an investment analyst in Scotland to return home and join his family business of fishing. Years later, he feels that there aren’t that many fish left to catch.
"My grandfather would tell me that one round of fishing would usually fetch 200-300 kilogram of catch. But today, even if we spend 2-3 days in the deep sea, we don’t get more than 100 kilogram of fish."Ganesh Nakhawa, Fisheries Entrepreneur
Ganesh blames the decline in the catch on factors like overfishing, climate change, and unpredictable weather.
Professor Behera explains it in detail as he says that directly or indirectly everybody will face the consequences of sea-level rise.
“The low-lying marshy lands will be the first to face the brunt of sea-level rise. If the sea level rises, water is going to flood more inland and the flora and fauna that we had in those regions is going to change. The plants, the marine life that we had in those marshy lands is going to change. They may shift, or they may disappear," he says.
Plight of The Frontliners
The Koli community, to which Ganesh Nakhawa belongs, is one of Mumbai’s oldest fishing communities – colloquially known as the original inhabitants of the island. If some accounts are to be believed, the city of Mumbai gets its name from Mumbadevi – the patron goddess of the Koli community.
For close to 500 years, the Kolis have been living and working around the coastal waters of Mumbai. But Ganesh says that things are changing now, slowly.
He says, “We used to go fishing 300 days a year, barring 2 months during monsoons. Now, at least 200 days out of these we experience bad weather.”
This, Nakhawa says, has led to a lot of younger people quitting their ancestral practice of fishing. “At least 50 percent of people I know have quit fishing in the last 10 years,” he adds.
But a change in the natural conditions in the sea is not the only reason why Nakhawa is worried. Urbanisation along the coast and development projects in the deep sea areas continue to spell disaster for over 5 lakh Koli fishers of Mumbai.
“There’s rapid development and infrastructural work taking place, not just along the coast but also in the deep sea. Open Google Maps and you can see the expanse of ONGC oil rigs near Bombay and you’d know what I’m talking about,” he adds.
One of these many development projects that Nakhawa is talking about is the ambitious Mumbai Coastal Road Project. Green-flagged by the Maharashtra government in 2017, the project has rendered over 15,000 fishing families homeless. Alauddin Khan’s family is one of those.
“Over the years, the nature of water in the sea has changed. We’re already fighting that. The question is, how do I fight my own government and their development initiatives which exclude the fisherfolks?" Khan asks.
The Coastal Road, an 8-lane, 22.2-km long freeway that would run along Mumbai's western coastline connecting Marine Lines in the south to Kandivali in the north, has been shown red flags by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its recent report.
The report terms the project ‘maladaptive’ which means that while the project is aimed at reducing flood risk and protecting the city against sea-level rise, it will in fact cause damage to intertidal fauna, flora and local fishing livelihoods.
If these projects continue, Nakhawa says, he will go bankrupt very soon.
“For many fishermen, there is no alternate income and huge loans to pay. At this rate, I don’t really have to wait for Mumbai to sink in the next 10 or 20 years. I’ll go bankrupt in just 5 years from now. And once the frontliners are down and out, who will protect the ocean?” he says.
When It Rains
Rhea Tanna is sitting by the window and sipping coffee in her 10th floor apartment in a society in Khar, an affluent low-lying Mumbai suburb, distant from the city’s coastline.
“This is for the first time in 25 years of my life that my family and I are not stressed about the monsoon,” she says.
The Tanna family moved out of their home of 50 years in the same locality after their walls started getting electrified due to annual flooding, which they say had intensified over the last 5-10 years.
“In 2020, during the monsoons, our walls started getting electrified and my mother and my brother got an electric shock. That was the tipping point for us, and we decided to leave the house,” Tanna explains.
“Our building went into redevelopment and we managed to move out but not everybody is as lucky,” Tanna says, as she shows us pictures of her old house at the time of flooding.
Electric shocks, crumbling balconies, snakes in the living room, floating refrigerators, and water-borne diseases, her family she says, had to go through “hell” each year as the monsoons arrived.
Rhea’s family is a victim of what newspaper and television headlines like to call ‘rain fury’. In 2021, at least 32 people were killed in Mumbai due to rains and rain-related incidents up until the month of July.
Professor Arpita Mondol from the climate science department at IIT-Bombay explains how climate change and rising sea level might be aggravating Mumbai’s monsoon mayhem.
"Scientists now are studying what many call compound extreme events. It means two extreme climate events coinciding with each other. Take for instance sea-level rise and a storm surge, or sea-level rise and an extreme rainfall event.”Arpita Mondol, Assistant Professor, IIT-B
Further, Mumbai’s overburdened housing, drainage, and sanitation system does little to help when it rains heavily.
“On 25 July 2005, we lost most of our things. We suffered financial loss, loss of property, and loss of belongings… a lot of belongings,” she says.
Mumbai’s existing drainage system can handle upto 25 millimetres of rain per hour at low tide. On 26 July 2005, it rained 944 mm in 24 hours, incurring losses running into billions of dollars.
A 2008 study conducted by scientists at IIT-Bombay in collaboration with Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the total economic impact of the 2005 floods was more than a billion dollars. This includes both the formal and informal economic sectors.
The same study also states that in case another similar disaster occurs 30 years from 2008, the total losses will be close to 3 trillion dollars.
Climate change is testing the limits of Mumbai and its residents. Extreme rainfall events are becoming more frequent, the shores of the city are experiencing 2-4 cyclones each year, and landslides, building collapses and water-borne diseases are becoming commonplace.
For the city to stay afloat, scientists say that in addition to global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by top global emitters like China, the United States, the European Union, we need a complete overhaul of our infrastructure development strategy.
While the city authorities have finalised a climate action plan, first of its kind for a city in south Asia, experts say that the plan does a good assessment of risks to Mumbai but little to address those risks.
D Parthasarthy, faculty member at the climate studies department in IIT-Bombay, breaks the plan down for us as he explains, “The climate action plan does not lay out a vision for what kind of development is sustainable. So, along with the action plan, if you are only going to use conventional developmental strategies, then that is only going to lead to more risks for us. So, whether it is the coastal road or giving permission for developmental activities in the CRZ for certain kinds of constructions, it’s not helping.”
Parthasarthy further stresses the need to include indigenous and coastal communities in the policy-making process.
Ganesh Nakhawa and Alauddin Khan agree.
“Return our ocean to us,” Nakhawa says. “The situation is very complex right now. Whatever happens with respect to the climate will impact us, the frontliners, first and others later. So, the solutions should have a joint approach,” he says.
For Khan — who is both jobless and homeless – the situation looks grim. “We are fishers. We’ve grown up around the sea. We will learn to adapt to its changing nature. But these development projects are something we cannot fight. The government should keep us in the loop when they plan these activities,” he says, as he cleans a new boat he has purchased after borrowing money from moneylenders.
“I have a boat but there are no fish. How am I supposed to feed my children? I can’t even give up fishing because there is nothing else that I’m skilled at,” Khan adds.
For him and many others in Mumbai, it’s a Catch-22 situation.