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A crowd of people sitting on a beach sorting fish into baskets.
The Koli community depend on fishing, but fish stocks off Mumbai’s coast have been declining. Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami/Shutterstock

Facing the dual threat of climate change and human disturbance, Mumbai – and the world – should listen to its fishing communities

Coastal cities and settlements are at the forefront of climate disruption. Rising sea levels, warmer seas and changes in rainfall patterns are together creating conditions that mean misery for coastal dwellers.

Disasters triggered by extreme weather often make headlines, but many problems linked to the climate are harder to see. These include the effects of warmer sea temperatures on marine ecosystems, the encroachment of seawater into once-fertile land, and coastal erosion.

Climate risks vary for coastal cities around the world. But according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, people living in coastal settlements with high social inequality are particularly at risk. This includes cities with a high proportion of informal settlements and those built near river deltas.

The Koli people are one such community. As the original inhabitants of Mumbai, they are spread across a number of historic fishing villages on the city’s coast. But they have steadily been marginalised. Mumbai’s official development plan ignores the role of the Koli, and the ecosystems they depend on, in reducing the climate risks facing the city.

This has forced the community to take risk mitigation into their own hands. Through our work with the Koli community, we have seen how their response to human threats has the potential to create a city more resilient to environmental change.

Mumbai’s environmental problem

In Mumbai, enormous wealth co-exists with poverty. Largely built on reclaimed land, the city has undergone rapid development.

Poor waste management, property development and increasingly frequent extreme weather have reduced mangrove cover and polluted the city’s coastal waters. Mangroves are important breeding grounds for a diverse range of aquatic species. Many of these species, such as the Bombay Duck and Pomfret, are vital sources of income for Koli fishers and are key to mangrove biodiversity.

4 rows of bombay duck, a local fish, hanging to dry in front of a calm sea.
Bombay duck, a vital source of income for the Koli community, drying on a beach. Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami/Shutterstock

But fish stocks are disappearing fast. Environmental degradation combined with intensive trawling has led to declining catches for traditional fishers. This has affected livelihoods, with Koli women feeling the impact particularly strongly due to their prominent role in processing and selling fish.

Studies have also shown that mangrove forests protect coastal areas from storm surges and coastal erosion. Reduced mangrove cover means extreme weather events now inflict severe damage to fishing infrastructure. Cyclone Tauktae in 2021 inflicted losses of 10 billion rupees (£109,000) to coastal fishers – damage to fishing boats alone was worth 250,000 rupees (£2,700).

Taking the initiative

Following Cyclone Tauktae, the Koli produced reports documenting the changing frequency and intensity of cyclones affecting the region. These reports, supplemented by media coverage, have raised awareness of the community’s vulnerability towards climate change.

This has allowed the Koli to collaborate with various groups to reduce their vulnerability. We have been working with the Koli community through our own research project, Tapestry. Our research has involved creating photographs and maps with the community to build a more comprehensive understanding of the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation for the region. This has highlighted the importance of mangroves for marine biodiversity and flooding protection.

An aerial shot of a mangrove forest in the foreground of a large sprawling city.
Mumbai’s mangrove forests are crucial for marine biodiversity and flood prevention. Viren Desai/Shutterstock

The efforts of the Conservation Action Trust, a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation that aims to protect forests and wildlife, have also been key in protecting mangroves. They found that mangroves were being cleared to make way for golf courses, residential buildings, rubbish dumps and transport infrastructure. They were instrumental in the development of the Mangrove Cell, a government agency that monitors efforts to conserve and enhance mangrove cover in India’s western Maharashtra state.

Addressing water pollution also emerged as a priority through discussions with the Koli community. Our project partner Bombay61 has since implemented measures to improve water quality. Over three days, a pilot trial of net filters collected around 500kg of waste from a single creek. This initiative also challenges the perception of creeks as “drains” or “sewers”.

A cluster of plastic bottles and litter floating in brown water.
The coastal waters the Koli depend on are heavily polluted. TK Kurikawa/Shutterstock

Engagement between the Koli community, environmental organisations, government officials and local public events and exhibitions has allowed more equitable solutions to human threats to be explored. These highlight the importance of local communities to resource governance and urban planning, and could help dissuade the government from destructive future development plans.

The lessons from the Koli experience extend beyond just Mumbai. While each coast and city will face different threats, the seeds of responses can be found in the people who know and understand the environments in which they live. Working with grassroots methods and groups can reveal how action can respond to local needs and address more than just physical climate risks.

If local strategies can be scaled up, they could transform urban planning and climate change mitigation. These strategies must address the need to adapt to climate change and minimise human disturbance. Paying attention to local people’s struggles and harnessing their ideas can be an essential part of creating cities that are more resilient to future threats.

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