Women Climate Leaders: Seema Adgaonkar

Gliding through swampy, ankle-deep muck, Seema Adgaonkar relishes the fragrance of Avicennia marina, the most widely spread mangrove species in Mumbai. Leading the project, she and her team have planted over two million seedlings to restore the region’s coastline and local ecosystem.

Serving the forest

While carrying ropes and hooks to pull themselves to safety as they trudge through the mudflats on patrol duty, Adgaonkar gives her subordinates instructions on where to plant saplings and shares tips on identifying some of the species. She is the only female officer appointed at the Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit (MMCU), a 36-member body dedicated to protecting the city’s mangrove forests.

Established in 2012, the MMCU falls under the Maharashtra forest department’s Mangrove Cell, the only unit in India specializing in mangrove conservation and restoration. “We serve the forest,” said Adgaonkar. “It’s primarily a field job. We keep a vigil on boundaries, perform natural and artificial mangrove regeneration, catch offenders, and bring them to court. We are bound to the duty 24/7.”

It’s a coalition Mumbai indeed needed. The clearing of mangroves in many city areas, particularly along the Mithi river, was cited as the main reason for the unprecedented flooding in 2005.

Mangroves protect Mumbai

One of the most densely populated cities globally, Mumbai is also one of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Erratic rainfall and sea-level rise can increase the frequency of coastal flooding. Under a business-as-usual scenario, experts warn that the likelihood of a 2005-like flood in Mumbai could more than double by 2080.

Mangroves play a vital role in stabilizing coastlines, preventing erosion, and protecting inland areas and populations from the worst effects of severe storms and flooding.  Therefore, protecting existing cover and regenerating mangroves is a natural solution to climate change.

Self-taught planting

In 2018, the Mangrove Cell, which Adgaonkar leads, planted around two million seedlings. In the unit, she was known for her expertise in mangrove plantations.

At the nursery, Adgaonkar is delighted by the different root patterns, buds, and flowers developed by the saplings planted by MMCU over the years. Despite having a background in terrestrial afforestation, she said that mangroves are a different ballgame due to the nature of the habitat and tidal behavior.

Planting was also a personal challenge. Hailing from a drier and interior region of Maharashtra, Adgaonkar’s idea of mudflats, creeks, and tides were all theoretical before she saw mangroves for the first time in Mumbai. After the training provided by the MMCU and teaching herself through many discussions with mangrove experts, consulting field guides and books by regional authors, and a few rounds of failed attempts at plantations, she finally gained confidence.

Hope in citizen collaborative conservation

In addition to planting, government-citizen partnership cleaning drives are also attempting to save mangroves. One such movement from 2015 to 2018 gathered 25,000 volunteers and cleared 8,000 tonnes of garbage from mangrove areas in Mumbai.

Adgaonkar remains hopeful and believes that the government, environmental groups, and citizen awareness together can help protect the environment. She’s sure that the fate of the mangroves and the city are intertwined, “If mangroves are saved, Mumbai will be saved.”

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