High water

Altering coastal zone rules could set Mumbai up for Kashmir-like floods

The city has at least 500 illegal buildings built on coastal land. But Maharashtra has still not completed a map demarcating its sensitive coastal zone.

The devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir this month, which left at least 277 dead and hundreds more stranded, were not just a natural calamity. Experts have attributed the destruction to unauthorised development in the region over several years, particularly along river banks.

A similar fate could face Mumbai, which has been consistently flouting environmental norms for development despite suffering from unprecedented floods in July 2005 that left around 400 people dead.

According to researchers at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, the devastation caused in the recent Jammu floods was compounded by the increasing construction of buildings and roads that have been rapidly encroaching on wetlands, lakes, ponds and the banks of the Jhelum river. Such construction reduces the drainage capacity of the water bodies and leaves little room for water to overflow.

In Mumbai and its neighbouring cities of Thane and Navi Mumbai, whose waterfronts fall under the central government’s Coastal Regulation Zones, there are strict norms for the kind of development activity allowed close to the coast. But city and state authorities have been shown a blatant disregard for those rules over the years.

Amended rules

These regulations have been the subject of debate in recent months when the Maharashtra government in May scotched a decision by the Coastal Zone Management Authority to reclassify the the shore along the city's Mahim section as a bay. This controversial decision by the coastal authority would have cleared the way for a rash of building near the coast. 

But other buildings have come up close to the shore in recent years, thanks to  amendment to the CRZ rules in 2011 that allows the redevelopment of slum clusters by the shore. In addition, at last count, there were at least 500 illegal coastal buildings across Greater Mumbai.

The Coastal Regulation Zone was notified in 1991 with the aim of keeping coasts free from construction, to protect traditional livelihoods of coastal inhabitants and to preserve the fragile marine ecology.

As per CRZ rules, all states have to map their coastlines, conduct a ground survey of inter-tidal areas, demarcate the "high tide line" up to which sea water reaches on the shore during high tides, and formulate a coastal zone management plan. The norms also mandate the involvement of local fishing communities in CRZ committees.

Spaces that are closest to the coast and most ecologically sensitive – such as open seafronts, wetlands, mudflats, or mangroves – are classified as CRZ-I, and no new constructions are permitted within 500 metres of the high tide line in these areas. CRZ-II refers to areas that have already been developed close to the shore, like fishing villages, and the norms restrict development only up to 100 metres of the high tide line.

“In Mumbai, not only are CRZ norms being flouted, but authorities have also not yet released the required maps that demarcate high tide lines and no-development zones,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environmental activist at the city-based non-profit group Vanashakti.

Playing with definitions

In March, the  Coastal Zone Management Authority almost got away with  demarcating the Mahim shoreline on Mumbai’s western coast as a bay instead of an open shore, which would have opened up the area to all kinds of construction and development.

Since coastal regulations were amended in 2011, different rules apply to open seafronts and cove-like bays. Along seafronts, constructions have to maintain a 500-metres distance from the high tide line, but in the case of a bay, the 100-metre norm of CRZ-II would apply.

In the case of Mahim, the redefinition allowed for the approval of a slum redevelopment project that had been stalled due to the old CRZ rules since 1991. It also came as good news for Hubtown, a real- estate company that wants to build a high-end residential complex on a 5.3-acre plot at Prabhadevi off Mahim.

In July, however, the state government put a stay on the order, calling it a “reckless decision” that would adversely affect town planning.

A history of unmapped geography

It took Maharashtra seven years to submit a map of its coastal zone to the union government. Through the 2000s, several construction projects in coastal zones were approved by the state's coastal management authority. “In many cases, the Authority claimed that there were errors in the map and the plots where projects were approved were wrongly shown as falling in coastal zones,” said Stalin.

In 2009, the environment minister questioned these errors on the map and directed the state to make final map of coastal zones in Maharashtra. Even though Chennai’s Institute of Remote Sensing was appointed for the task, this new map has been in preparation for almost five years, with the state government asking the Centre for repeated extensions on the deadline.

Even though the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority is supposed to be in charge of this map, an official from the Authority claims that a draft of the map is currently with the Mumbai municipal corporation.

“The corporation is verifying certain errors that have come up in the map,” said AT Fulmali, a member secretary of the coastal management authority. “After that we will be doing a public consultation and taking the views of stakeholders, such as the departments of industry, urban development and town planning, before submitting the map.”

Activists, however, find this suspicious. “Why do they need to consult these departments on a matter of science and ecology?” asked Stalin.

Disaster waiting to happen?

The state government may have put one reckless environmental decision on hold, but experts feel the city is already buckling under the pressure of decades of reclamation and irresponsible constructions. This year, at the start of the monsoon in June, high tide waves lashed the coast and inundated the broad promenades around the Gateway of India and Marine Drive.

“We already saw what happened when the Mithi river overflowed in 2005, but if we keep playing with nature, we are likely to suffer the same consequences as Kashmir or Uttarakhand,” said Arvind Untawale, the executive secretary of the Mangroves Society of India, a non-profit organisation that studies and aims to protect mangroves.

Mangroves, which surround the marshy shores of greater Mumbai, act as a buffer against high tides and floods, so choking and destroying them leaves the city vulnerable to frequent inundation.

“It is extremely important to keep natural drains and channels open because in case of heavy rains, water needs to be able to flow out smoothly,” said Rakesh Kumar, chief scientist and head of the Mumbai-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. “The city cannot afford to ignore CRZ norms.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.