MumbaiNaama: Trees Are The Best Natural Climate Warriors To Build Resilience In Mumbai

MumbaiNaama: Trees Are The Best Natural Climate Warriors To Build Resilience In Mumbai

The more the trees, and the larger the variety, the better off Mumbai’s resilience to extreme weather events that seem inevitable now

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, June 20, 2024, 11:19 PM IST
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It was a green public notice, literally a shade of pistachio green. It “invited various establishments such as government and private offices, residential premises, educational institutes, hospitals et cetera for participation in tree plantation programme.” Issued by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited, the notice specified that the tree plantation drive was along the Metro 3 corridor from SEEPZ to Colaba and around the station areas on the route, and its contractor would be responsible for supply of the trees and their maintenance for three years.

This green notice should have been heartening to us Mumbaikars who believe that trees are — and will be — our best bulwark against climate change impact from excessive heat to unprecedented floods and poor-quality air. The more the trees, and the larger the variety, the better off Mumbai’s resilience to extreme weather events that seem inevitable now. Delhi and surrounding urban areas, as we know, have been battered by a brutal heat wave this month with daytime temperatures showing a relentless 40 degrees Celsius and night-time temperatures refusing to come down. Heat-related deaths are being recorded across cities and towns of north India. To ask what trees can do is to miss the obvious link.

Did MMRCL suddenly wake up to significance of trees? It had arrogantly and adamantly chopped down more than 2,200 old and mature trees overnight in the Aarey Colony to make way for the Metro 3 car shed even as scores of citizens and tree activists tried to prevent the massacre of the green cover. It is not difficult to find the MMRCL’s new-found love for trees – the Bombay High Court order of 2017. After it was dragged to the court on the issue, the MMRCL was compelled to give an undertaking that it would plant, replant, and transplant 2,600 trees in situ at metro stations and along the metro route. This court order is now being followed and people being invited.

“The trees selected include flowering trees, ornamental trees, evergreen trees etc with the age of seven years and general height of 15 feet,” reads the notice. Some of the selected varieties are Mahogany, Nakul, Sonchafa. Taman, Kadamb, Akash-neem, Umbrella tree, Saptapami, Pimpal and others. We can hope that the replanted or transplanted trees will bring back some of the green cover lost to metro construction. Nothing will bring back the loss in Aarey, of course. The denudation of the plot where the car shed or depot stands is heartbreakingly clear in top-angle photographs shared by activists — what was lush green till mid-2022 is stark brown two years later. It may be recalled that the depot was bulldozed through in July 2022 after Eknath Shinde, backed by the BJP, replaced Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation released a set of photos this week of the city’s glorious Marine Drive put back in order after years of construction activities for the coastal road. The promenade glistened and should have made us happy – except that it was completely bereft of trees. The iconic stretch of Marine Drive was not heavily lush with trees ever but it did boast of green that helped cut the harsh sun and rain, and completed the promenade. Why were trees missing here? Who in the BMC will answer why, in 2024, can a prime promenade in the city be returned to the people without a single tree planted? Worse, this is hailed as ‘development’.

Mumbai’s authorities undervalue trees in every sense. They underestimate the significance of trees in the natural ecosystem as well as their role as climate warriors. The Mumbai Climate Action Plan, no less a document than that, told us two years ago that the city had lost a staggering 2,028 hectares of urban tree cover between 2016 and 2021 while a RTI query by a newspaper this year showed that more than 21,000 trees have been lost to metro construction alone. The National Green Tribunal took suo moto notice of the latter in April. There are other ways too to see how insignificant trees or green cover are in the larger development plans of the city.

Trees are nature’s canopies against heat waves and flooded areas. As environmentalists and researchers have shown, trees help to reduce air pollutants, buffer micro temperature fluctuations, reduce the Urban Heat Island effect by lowering surface asphalt temperatures, and go a long way in flood control measures. Trees cool down areas – this is empirically proven when temperatures are recorded on the same day, at the same time, in localities with and without trees. Extremely high temperatures like we saw this summer with an average of 8-9 degrees Celsius higher than normal, which affect everyone but mean heat stress illness – even death – for millions of outdoor workers, still showed a drop in greener areas.

Abundant tree cover is not only a heat-buster but also an undeniable flood mitigator. When old and mature trees rooted in soil are left undisturbed, they help to soak in rainwater, reducing the surface runoff and waterlogging in an area. Devoid of trees, there is little to pull the water into the earth. The transpiration mode of trees ensures that they help purify air around them by taking in pollutants. A walk in wooded areas, therefore, leaves us refreshed; we breathe literally cleaner air.

The urban tree cover in Mumbai or any other city — Delhi has lost hectares, Ahmedabad lost 47.6% from 2011 to 2021, Chennai lost nearly 13.5% of its vegetation between 2013 and 2022 — cannot be replaced by replanting or transplanting a few thousand trees. If the RTI data is correct that Mumbai lost more than 21,000 trees to metro construction, then it is fanciful to believe that each metro line putting back some of the trees will restore the green cover. All the replanted or transplanted trees do not survive, as studies have shown; less than one in four do.

What is the alternative? It’s quite simple really — build with nature. Plan and design Mumbai’s development and its mega projects around the existing green cover rather than cut it down and then attempt to put a fraction of it back. The BMC that permits thousands of trees to be mercilessly chopped hesitates to relocate one tree on an arterial road that could lead to accidents or slow down traffic flow, or penalises people for trimming branches. Missing the woods for trees never had a stronger example than this.

It is time that the BMC and Mumbai’s planners understood the true importance of what it means to build with nature. The economy versus ecology is an old and tired argument. It does not hold water at a time when cities have been struggling through heat and floods; it belongs to an era long gone. As the earth warms up beyond belief, unless all development is synced to nature, and plans are made with nature protecting the green cover, there is more doom ahead.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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