The ‘forgotten’ water ecosystems of Mumbai

City’s water systems need urgent attention to build resilience against climate-related uncertainties 

By Ketaki Bhadgaonkar, Jai Bhadgaonkar
Published: Monday 05 September 2022
Polluted Malad creek in Mumbai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Most of Mumbai’s youth seems oblivious to the ecological challenges faced by their city — especially its water bodies. However, these need urgent attention for resilience against climate-related uncertainties.

The devastating Mumbai floods of 2005 brought the long-forgotten Mithi River back to public attention. Stream systems play an important role in the hydrological cycle, transporting water off the landscape and back to the estuaries and oceans. 

The role of rivers and creeks, however, is far greater than simple drainage since they provide crucial habitat for many of Mumbai’s aquatic flora and fauna. 

Dahisar, Mithi, Oshiwara, and Poisar are Mumbai’s four rivers, which flow into the Arabian Sea through the Malad, Mahim, Marve, and Thane creeks, respectively. We refer to the city’s water bodies as nullahs (drains), which is an indicator of our casual attitude towards their environmental degradation.

The term “environmental generational amnesia” was coined by PH Kahn, a professor at the Department of Psychology and director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) Lab, University of Washington. Kahn interviewed youth who knew in abstract that pollution is bad for the environment; many did not take notice of the polluted settings around them.

Read more: Coastal flooding may double by 2030, new study finds

“Over time, environmentally degraded settings had become the new normal. The possibility that they might reverse environmental harm seemed not to be within the youths’ purview,” theorised Kahn. 

This phrase is incredibly pertinent today for the youth of Mumbai. There is a sense of normalcy towards our damaged surroundings since it is something that has always been around.

Water bodies like rivers and creeks are called sewage nullahs (drains), oblivious to the fact that the city’s natural ecology was formed by these water networks, which has deteriorated over time.

The Portuguese took over the original seven islands of the Mumbai region in 1530 from the Sultan of Ahmedabad. They gave it the name “bom bahia” or “excellent harbour” to reflect the region’s diverse coastline ecologies. 

The city was made up of many island clusters inhabited by various tribes. The Kolis — native fishers — were already well-established on the islands in 1138 CE, when Pratap Bimba, king of Champaner, conquered the area, according to records. 

The indigenous communities of Bombay were intimately familiar with the water systems and how the mangroves were interdependent on them for survival. Over time, the settlements saw intense urbanisation as the lands were reclaimed. A few of the settlements even succumbed to the pressure of urbanisation and vanished from maps.

Generations of Kolis thrived on vibrant water channels and a healthy environment, which have now been reduced to thick sludge as a result of the city’s neglect and pollution. It is ironic how the Kolis catch more plastic than fish in their nets today.


Maps identifying declining creek biodiversity over the last 30 years, as narrated by the Koli community. Maps: Bombay 61 Studio 

Coastal ecosystems and wetlands such as mangrove forests and biodiversity creeks have been systematically appropriated for commercial and infrastructure development purposes in Mumbai by state and private entities. 

Climate change-related uncertainties such as rising sea levels, extreme rainfall events, heat island effects and changes in ocean surface temperature are likely to have an impact on the city. These, combined with environmental degradation, have created significant risks for coastal regions and their populations, particularly Kolis and tribals (Warlis).

Read more: Mumbai deluge raises same old question: Why are Indian cities flooded again and again

These coastal environments nurtured by the Kolis once brought them rewards but have today increasingly deteriorated. Fishing is currently a precarious livelihood due to factors like climate change, development demands, ecological degradation, and shifting ambitions. 

Fish once bred in the creeks where freshwater from rivers met saltwater from the sea. These seas’ worrying pollution levels have caused a decline in marine life.

It has compelled fishermen to venture further out into the open seas, which is costly and unsustainable in the long run. The loss of mangrove cover due to urbanisation projects has increased the frequency of flooding and wiped out once-thriving wildlife breeding grounds.

Koli culture and traditions are inextricably linked to their occupation. Their deities, folklore, festivals, and songs are all centred on their relationship with nature. The multiple threats are raising concerns about the future of the younger generations, where changing community aspirations may lead to the loss of traditional knowledge and skills. 

Thus, issues such as loss of livelihood, contested rights over commons, deteriorating environment, and changing aspirations of the youth are critical for the sustenance and well-being of these communities.

The Maharashtra government announced the Mumbai Climate Action Plan (MCAP) in March 2022, an initiative to address the city’s increasing climate change threats and make several recommendations on adaptation and mitigation strategies. 

According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II, community stakeholder involvement is crucial to risk, adaptation, and vulnerability assessments. This is because the community is at the frontiers of climate change and will be most affected (Burton et al., 2002; Renn, 2004; UNDP, 2005). IPCC is a United Nations body for climate change knowledge.  

The MCAP recognises the disproportionate impact of climate change-induced hazards on vulnerable communities such as the Kolis and discusses ways to strengthen their resilience.

This action plan should be expanded to include the direct impact of polluting creeks on the sustenance and livelihood of the Koli community, as well as the solutions they have to offer to address the city’s livability concerns. 

Read more: Mumbai Climate Action Plan aims to remove carbon emissions by 2050. Can it be done?

Examples of community-led adaptations that were initiated by incorporating indigenous knowledge systems to bring about transformation include the crab culture in Daravali, “New Catch in Town” in Versova and the prawn culture in Dharavi. New Catch in Town is a pilot project jointly led by thinktank Bombay61 Studio, the Ministry of Mumbai's Magic collective and research entity TAPESTRY. 

There is an urgent need to restore the city’s water systems in order to build resilience against climate-related uncertainties and sustain indigenous communities’ livelihoods. It is also critical to recognise the role of communities, particularly the youth, in reversing environmental amnesia and making the city more livable for all. 

The transformation begins with acknowledging the city’s ecosystems and facilitating collective action at the grassroots by recognising indigenous communities’ role as guardians of these coastal environments.

Ketaki and Jai Bhadgaonkar are urban designers and co-founders of thinktank Bombay61 Studio

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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