Why Delhi needs its Wetlands: The Okhla Bird Sanctuary

Why Delhi needs its Wetlands: The Okhla Bird Sanctuary

The Okhla Bird Sanctuary wetlands are part of the natural wealth of Delhi, a city on the banks of the river Yamuna. One of the most productive ecosystems of the world, wetlands contribute to reducing disaster risk by serving as natural protective barriers or buffers,  mitigating hazard impacts.

But the wetlands on the corridor of Yamuna are rapidly diminishing due to human induced activities and are today one of the most threatened ecosystems, with the pressure for conversion of wetlands for developmental purposes growing exponentially every single day.

A rivers playground stolen

Floods are not new to Delhi. In 1978, the capital witnessed one of the worst ever flood, and when 130 villages and 25 urban colonies in Delhi were submerged in water. In 2010, when the September rainfall was 180% more than the normal and water levels in Yamuna crossed the danger mark, destructive floods again hit the city. The river water was further squeezed as a chunk of the floodplain, size of the Commonwealth Games Village, was no longer available for it as it was for centuries. And so, the floods again created havoc.

Today, urban floods are a regular nuisance. Heavy rains are not only to blame. The entire river bed in the west, between the ring road and the stream, has been swallowed up in the name of construction and development. Instead of the open land, it now hosts a thermal power plant, politicians and leaders samadhis and the Millenium bus depot. Encroachment, uncontrolled siltation, weed infestation and uncontrolled discharge of effluents and wastewater, have made the floodplains even more vulnerable.

No place to run

Ponds have disappeared under newly made bridges and flyovers; and unplanned and erratic urbanisation has altered the drainage characteristics of natural catchments. Concretised areas don’t allow water to seep in, increasing the volume of surface runoff. The existing drains, already choked with indiscriminate solid waste disposal, are unable to cope with this extra heavy load. Both of these, inadequate drainage and uncontrolled development, are a major reason for urban floods, a perennial occurrence in the city today.

Why the wetland matters

The floodplains of the river Yamuna, more than 90 sq. km area, boasts of forests, agricultural fields, settlements, lakes and ponds, besides an array of floral and faunal diversity. And it also has the capacity to hold 2 billion cubic meters of water. The maximum width of the floodplain is observed near Okhla, where the Bird Sanctuary, a rich biodiversity habitat exists.

The wetland and the availability of water near Okhla throughout the year helps maintain minimum water level required for functioning of the floodplain. The surplus water during monsoon percolates down, and helps control floods and also maintain moisture regimes during lean periods. Bio accumulation of key nutrients in floodplain also helps to reduce pollution stress.

Besides these, it provides ecosystem services like groundwater recharge, excess water storage, disease regulation, carbon sequestration, shelter belt and thermal regulation in the hot summers. A source of livelihood, water and fish, the wetlands support recreational and educational activities too.

The fertile floodplain supports vegetable farming, horticulture and floriculture, ensuring a regular income for the communities living here. For the city, it helps in disaster risk reduction by addressing hazards such as drought, floods and epidemics, and reducing its vulnerability.

Thus these wetlands ecosystems provide various tangible and intangible benefits both to the urban society and other associated dependent ecosystems, on a sustainable basis. And integration of ecosystem services of these very wetlands in the DRR framework can work as a strategy to reduce exposure and vulnerability, and enhance livelihood capacities as well as resilience of the city.

This blog is based on an excerpt from ‘Urban Resilience and Sustainability through Peri-Urban Ecosystems: Integrating Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction’, a Process Guidance and Training Handbook, published by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), supported under the ACCCRN initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


The plight of the Peri Urban space: 4 cities under the lens

The plight of the Peri Urban space:  4 cities under the lens

Cities are expanding mercilessly, engulfing open fields, flood plains and water bodies that lie unsuspecting on its outer fringes. In a rush to cater to the exploding population, both resident and migrated, these cities are changing a versatile, self sufficient landscape into a depleted, degraded zone. These transition spaces, known as peri-urban area, are at a crossroad, caught between the development furore and a decaying or destroyed ecosystem.

Here, we look at these growing cities across the country, to see how urbanisation has brought in drastic changes in both the topography and adaptability of these peri-urban areas.

Jorhat, Assam

A fast growing town, Jorhat lies on the banks of two tributaries of the mighty river Brahmaputra. Prone to recurrent flooding and water logging, the situation in the peri-urban areas is projected to worsen, with the advent of climate change related extreme and short spells of rainfall.

Between 1962 and 2005, the land use pattern has shifted drastically, and open areas and water bodies have both disappeared with alarming frequency. The vacant land has reduced by more than 50%, area under parks and playgrounds by nearly 8%, while the land area under roads and railways increased by more than 45%.

Needless to say, this jump in the covered area has reduced the capacity of the land to absorb water, increasing the surface water to flow faster, and accumulate in the low lying areas, resulting in prolonged bouts of waterlogging.

10-15 years ago, more than 60% houses had a resident water body in their premises. High land value, urbanisation pressure and climate change has slashed this number by more than half. Locally available bamboo used for houses construction earlier, has been replaced with cement to create RCC structures. Forests have been lost and orchards cut. Rain fed farming is practised, but with no irrigation facilities or integrated market available in the peri-urban areas.

Change in land use patterns, shrinking ecosystems and low income from agriculture is aiding distressed sale of land. GEAG is working with these peri-urban farmers to learn techniques of low external inputs and climate resilient agriculture, integrated farming that incorporates horticulture, fisheries etc. Growing high value crops and also increasing crop diversity, too is being encouraged for farming to turn more sustainable for the farmers.

Basirhat, West Bengal

On the border with Bangladesh, peri-urban areas of North 24-Parganas are on the fast track to urbanisation. An additional issue of a huge migration influx has deteriorated the existing ecosystems services here with 5-8% of agricultural land conversion to residential dwellings in the last one decade. Rampant encroachment has gobbled up the water bodies, and 30% ponds are now contaminated due to hybrid fish rearing. Drinking water, hygiene and sanitation issues now plague the poor.

Earlier local varieties of fish were bred, but due to better commercial viability, catfish, which usually is reared in dirty water, is more prevalent, adding to the contamination of groundwater and the environment.

Saharsa, Bihar

Situated in the northern part of the country, it is a flat, alluvial plane in the Kosi river basin. Facing the brunt of floods, nearly every year, the changing river has lead to high soil erosion in the area.

For the poor it is easier to settle in the flood afflicted, low lying areas, more so in the piece of land between the river and its embankment. Open areas are being build over, and encroachments on the existing natural ecosystem is widespread. The existence of nearly 125 brick kilns in the peri-urban area is a critical factor leading to top soil degradation and erosion.

To counter these effects, stress is being laid on the promotion of peri-urban agriculture, conservation of open spaces and water bodies, both to improve the livelihoods of the farmers and improve the resilience of the city itself.

Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh

Gorakhpur city in eastern Uttar Pradesh lies in bowl shaped topography, in the lower riparian area of river Rohini. Already susceptible to recurring floods and waterlogging, episodes of extreme, short burst of rainfall are expected to increase this vulnerability.

Its peri-urban area already faces this challenge. Prone to floods and waterlogging for nearly 2-3 months every year, the small and marginal farmers face the threat of crop losses, and a sustainable livelihood. Changing land use patterns, increasing cost of agriculture and a degraded environment thanks to an unmindful dumping of sewage and waste, is adding to the problems faced by the farmers.

The western peri-urban area, more than 8000 ha of land, is prone to floods. Between 2002 and 2015, nearly one third of these flood plains, a no construction zone, have been converted into built up area. The city is moving rapidly towards the north, north-east, east and south-eastern peripheral area, that is free from waterlogging and flood. And the agricultural land in this direction is taking the fall for the construction boom here, rapidly being converted into residential areas, exacerbating an already delicate situation.

Why it matters

Cities fail to understand that these very peri-urban areas and their ecosystems are a store house of resources, act as a buffer to floods and droughts, and help build up capacities; all of which help reduce the vulnerability of any city. And so, for a resilient and sustainable development of any city or urban area, the focus must be on peri-urban ecosystems and their resilience.

This blog is based on an excerpt from ‘Urban Resilience and Sustainability through Peri-Urban Ecosystems: Integrating Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction’, a Process Guidance and Training Handbook, published by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), supported under the ACCCRN initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation.

Time to mainstream an ‘Ecosystem based Urban Resilience’

Time to mainstream an ‘Ecosystem based Urban Resilience’

Cities are where the opportunities, employment and growth are, and that is the reason why half of the world’s people live in cities today. By 2050, these cities will be home to 75% of the total human population. A large ecological footprint, growing demand, as well as depletion of natural resources, has placed a huge burden on the ecosystems in these areas.

To ensure a sustainable, inclusive and resilient urban future, a paradigm shift is needed in the urban/ peri-urban policy framework that takes into account rural-urban and livelihood linkages, and no longer ignores the rapidly thinning line between the rural and urban. The need is for a governance set up that is integrative and looks at peri-urban and rurban change, and also safeguards the interests of the communities, land and the ecosystem.

As of now, different line departments look after forests, water bodies and land in the country. Municipalities manage cities, and Panchayats take care of peri-urban areas. Lack of coordination, data sharing or any discussion between these many agencies and departments, is a huge challenge and does not happen easily. Development is usually governed by multiple agencies that include Panchayats, municipalities and other development authorities, often unclear on their roles and responsibilities. Further, there is no separate department for urban or peri-urban agriculture, an important factor that can improve a city’s resilience.

Many of the present schemes that address different urban issues, like Accelerated Urban Water Supply Program (AUWSP), Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT), Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Smart Cities Mission (SCM), are all inherently ‘urban’ schemes, and presently do not extend to the transition areas, the peri urban space.

But a holistic approach for urban development is impossible without looking at the development of the fringe areas around it.  And so planners and experts need to step ahead and revisit the existing master plans and regional plans, integrating peri-urban areas in the core planning if they want a sustainable, equitable and inclusive development in the urban as well as the peri-urban regions.

The Urban and Regional Development Plan Formulation and Implementation Guidelines (URDPFI) is a step in this direction, with an objective to promote and facilitate planned and integrated urban development in all cities of the country. The local urban authorities thus need to practice environmentally sustainable urban development.

For this, a decision tool, the Environmental impact assessment (EIA) can be used. If made an integral part of the project approval procedure for local government and other authorities, it can aid the practice of an environmentally sustainable urban development that no longer burdens our future generations. Another way is to calculate the city’s Ecological Footprint. This can be understood as simply the land needed to provide the necessary resources to support any population, and absorb the wastes generated by the community.  This will help clarify the ecological and economical benefits in the concerned urban areas.

Any such environmental policy tools of assessment will help improve land-use, financial and governance decisions, and ensure that the urban, as well as peri-urban ecosystems are not just recognised, but thrive in the build up for a resilient city.

This blog is based on an excerpt from ‘Urban Resilience and Sustainability through Peri-Urban Ecosystems: Integrating Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction’, a Process Guidance and Training Handbook, published by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), supported under the ACCCRN initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation.



Why cities must be peri-urban smart

Why cities must be peri-urban smart

Urban centres and ecosystems share a two way relationship, albeit a skewered one. Cities use the many physical and environmental services that these ecosystems provide, anteing up their own resilience, but with no thought or concern for the preservation or continuity of these service rendering ecosystems. Benefits for the cities include easy access to food and water, available land for building bigger, buffer from floods and recreational, health gains.  The ecosystems however only face ‘extraction’.

And the peri-urban areas that house these ecosystems bear the brunt of this ‘extractive‘ nature of urbanisation.  Open areas are lost, ecologically sensitive land usurped and fields overrun with cement and mortar. The land turns into a waste dumpyard for the fast growing urban area, leading to a degraded environment that affects the health and the livelihoods of the people living in these peri-urban areas.

And this peri-urban space also supports agriculture that not only enhances the city food basket but helps the urban diet to be diverse and nutritious. Loss of these peri-urban ecosystems can wreck havoc on the food production and supply for the city. With climate change playing a vital role in the increasing trend of disasters across the globe, the health of these ecosystems takes on an added value.

Natural wetlands, mangrove forests, marshes, coral reefs, floodplains; all these contribute immensely in reducing disaster risk. They help in groundwater recharge, flood control, green house gas mitigation, nutrient mitigation, improve soil stability besides educational, recreational and cultural benefits.

Cities are hot beds for green house gas emission (GHG) emission. The peri-urban regions are a potential area for green services and green infrastructure that can reduce this effect in the urban environment through various mitigation processes.

Water scarcity is an urban nightmare, expected to worsen even as India is on a trajectory to become ‘water stressed’ by 2025 and ‘water scarce’ by 2050[1]. The peri-urban areas with healthy vegetation and green spaces can play a vital role to influence the local water availability, storage and purification. Urban sanitation challenge too needs to be addressed holistically, taking into account the complete cycle of toilet access, and then collection, conveyance and treatment of human excreta; and not view the peri-urban areas simply as a sink for their waste

It is time cities and their master plans take into account these shifting and growing fringes that provide these essential ecological and environmental services to the urban hub, if they wish to be truly and really ‘smart’.

This blog is based on an excerpt from ‘Urban Resilience and Sustainability through Peri-Urban Ecosystems: Integrating Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction’, a Process Guidance and Training Handbook, published by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), supported under the ACCCRN initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation.

[1] According to UN-Water, an area is experiencing ‘water stress’ when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 m3 per person. When annual water supplies drop below 1,000 m3 per person, the population faces ‘water scarcity’.

Struggling for recognition: Peri-Urban areas

Struggling for recognition: Peri-Urban areas

Cities are booming across the globe. Bursting at the seams, trying to cater to the water, sanitation, land and food clamour of the teeming urban population, exhausted of their limited resources, these cities are expanding outward towards their fringes, the peri-urban areas.

Unfortunately, these peri-urban areas are neither geographically nor conceptually well defined. Neither rural nor truly urban, but at the same time dynamic and fast growing; they seem to have been lost in the ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ play of policy, politics and potential.

The peri-urban land is open for grabs especially to unscrupulous land sharks or city beneficial development schemes. Ecosystems are destroyed, air and water quality compromised, forests chopped up and agricultural fields gobbled up. The peri-urban residents lose out on their land and their livelihoods, vulnerable to the onslaught of a degraded and often polluted environment.

What the cities forget is that this very degradation in the ecosystem results in a loss of services that actually support the urban population. As river and lakes pollution increases, accessible source of water sources for the city are contaminated and destroyed. Water demands surge, groundwater table’s plummet and underground aquifers fail to recharge. Open land cease to exist, natural drainage is blocked and a buffer to floods forsaken. Also, when agricultural land is forfeited to buildings and malls, the food supply to the city is threatened by high price and availability. And soon, a landscape that was permeable, shady and versatile turns dry, solid and inflexible.

Besides the land, the people too lose out. Peri-urban areas are typically marked by slums and illegal settlements, where it is mostly the low-income families who live and survive. Living in dismal hygiene and sanitation conditions, for them their ecosystems destruction means loss of food, nutrition or income. And these are the same people who work in informal sectors in the city, ensuring further services to the city.

The time to set the record straight and to truly recognise and understand the peri-urban space is now. It is time to appreciate that these peri-urban ecosystems provide numerous essential physical and environmental services to cities and their residents; And acknowledge the peri-urban areas as what they truly are- An opportunity to boost the resilience of every city.

This blog is based on an excerpt from ‘Urban Resilience and Sustainability through Peri-Urban Ecosystems: Integrating Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction’, a Process Guidance and Training Handbook, published by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), supported under the ACCCRN initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation.

Talking vulnerability: The Child in the City

Talking vulnerability: The Child in the City

In the 1970s, India had just adopted its first National Policy for Children. It was to become a hallmark policy among public pronouncement s of countries of the developing world. Among its pledges, it accorded ‘paramount importance’ to the best interests of the child in all matters of dispute.

As of 2013, a new policy replaced the 1974 NPC, and the pledge to paramountacy of children’s best interests was switched with a line acknowledging them as a matter of primary concern.  The new policy, however, did affirm that India will extend its care and protection to ‘all children’ in its territory and jurisdiction. 

In the 1970s, UNICEF headquarters regularly published a periodical called ‘UNICEF News.’ A notable issue carried the banner title ‘The Child in the City.’ It reported eloquently on the uncertainties of childhood in an urban poor setting. There was little good news, quite a number of warnings of the un-protectedness of children of the urban poor, and their growing numbers. Cities, the special issue said, were tending to cater to the rich; steps for their ‘modernisation’ were reducing spaces where the poor could live, and bypassing their need for basic services. Yet, migration into urban areas was growing.   

With this background note, many pertinent questions arise on our understanding of ‘the child in the city’, and the effect of disasters on them. Who are these children of the city?  Why are they more vulnerable? What do we mean by ‘resilience’? Is there more to it than simply ‘being prepared’?

The past few years in the Indian Sub-continent have been marked by aberrations in expected weather patterns. It has rained when it should not, in areas where it ‘normally’ did not, and it has failed to rain when it should, in other areas where it ought to have done so in its traditional season. Floods have broken their own records. Earthquakes are increasing, and choosing new locations. Hill-sides have become unstable, perhaps because of blocked drainage routes. And cities and towns have shown that they cannot cope. Climate change impact is a reality, though hard to say whether it is a cause or an effect.

City administrations add their own mistakes to the blighting of urban areas. The felling of trees has denuded large areas, and unsettled ground spaces that depended on the holding powers of roots and the kindness of green cover. In some parts of the country, water tables have fallen in both fields and city spaces. In other places, water can be tapped just a few feet underground, but the mix of sewage seeping into the ground with the water sources makes its dangerous to use. The fields and forests themselves have fallen to the outward growth of cities and towns. Temperature patterns have been affected. As dust levels as well as air pollution and smog are increasing, so are the risks they pose to health. Many towns and cities are ringed by ‘industrial areas,’ which contribute their own burdens to the viability of urban settlements. The awesome generation and accumulation of waste, and the generally poor disposal mechanisms add filth to other hazards.

Congestion is a serious and oppressive hazard in urban areas, and both construction and settlement are its signs and symptoms. Maintenance programmes and services stand defeated by both un-controlled building and the steady influx of people coming to settle or to seek seasonal work. As older parts of urban settlements become crowded with people who cannot provide or support the upkeep of buildings they occupy, old ownership gives way to squatter occupation, buildings deteriorate and collapse. Many urban dwellers have no roof over their heads. Also among them are children without any adult presence or support in their daily lives.

Risk awareness and risk analysis are one thing, risk prevention another. Risk reduction is yet another, but are we speaking of ‘before’, ‘during’ or ‘after’?  Survivors of risk realities, adults or children, generally have to learn how to cope and to pick up the pieces of their lives. But they do not become vulnerable or needy only when misfortune strikes; they already are.

And protective and caring governance mechanisms require training and orientation firmly grounded in ethics. ‘Resilience’ is to be carefully defined, and the responsibility for “being prepared” like a good ‘Boy Scout,’ should not be assigned primarily to the potential victim of disaster.

The author of this blog is Ms Razia Ismail who is the co-founder and Convenor of the Indian Alliance for Child Rights (IACR). She has served in UNICEF for 23yrs, at Regional and Country Offices. She is a recognised child rights advocacy expert and trainer in India, South Asia and West Asia.

Children, Cities and Climate Change

Children, Cities and Climate Change

Climate change impacts each one of us, but children are the most vulnerable and consequently the worst affected. Our children are our future; and their well-being, healthy growth and safety must be our top priority. Children are, and will be affected by climate change and disasters; through malnutrition, diseases, physical and psychological trauma, to name just a few. Not only do they have to cope with the direct consequences of climate change, but also suffer its ripple effect on their family and living environment, through loss of habitat and livelihood.

Climate related disasters are not only increasing in frequency and intensity, but will only get worse with time. The stress induced and the adverse impacts of these disasters are both projected to increase, and will impact children, particularly those who are deprived and living in poverty, the most. Heat waves, floods, droughts, sea-level rise, cyclones, landslides are all likely to increase and these will affect all those living here in varied environments in different ways.

The impact on the children will be multi faceted. Schools can get destroyed, education severely impacted, and children taken out of school to contribute to the diminishing household income. Loss of habitat and homes can result in temporary or permanent migration, which again affects education and the well-being of children. Safety and security of children is another major concern that could further be impacted by such events. Thus, climate change will have short and long-term impact on children’s health, education, growth and also their future.

Droughts will not only impact food security, but also result in children dropping out of school to help the family fetch water or contribute to the family income. Fetching water from long distances (a job often thrust on children) can impact children’s health. Scarcity of water can result in the use of contaminated water, leading to water borne diseases and disabilities, which also impacts the growth of children.

Heavy precipitation is causing floods in many urban areas. Young children easily drown in such suddenly created pools of water, walk in the dirty water mixed with sewage and solid waste, get injured and fall ill. Open defecation can further exacerbate problems as fecal matter gets mixed with flood/ stagnant waters and results in serious illnesses. Floods can destroy school buildings, health facilities and infrastructure. Even though the buildings can be repaired post flood, moisture on the walls remains for a long time and can cause respiratory problems amongst children. This makes them vulnerable to other types of diseases too, due to their reduced immunity.

With global warming happening at an unprecedented scale, children will be highly affected by the heat stress, both in schools and at home. Children can suffer heatstroke, fall ill or even die due to extreme heat, exposure to sun, or dehydration. The indirect impacts include faster deterioration of cooked food, limited outdoor physical activity, and malnutrition. Adaptation measures can reduce the adverse impact of heat stress. These include – indoor sports facilities, playgrounds with trees and greenery, school buildings with good ventilation and cool roofs, solar powered fans (to cope with
power shortages during severe summer heat), and recycling wastewater to deal with water scarcity. Use of indigenous earthen wares to keep food safe and water cool, and promotion of traditional architecture to keep houses cool by using local designs, materials and paints, can also help reduce this heat stress.

Children should not be viewed only as recipients who will be impacted by climate change; they can also contribute to adaptation. Older children often have innovative ideas that can tackle problems. They must be consulted and their participation in decision making be encouraged. Their innovations and experiments can provide local level solutions that may be simple and easy to implement. Also, they can act as catalysts, who can change adult behavior and at the same time teach younger children too.

Children today will become adults tomorrow. If we do not focus on the health, education and safety of our children today, we may not be able to reap the demographic dividends of tomorrow. We may have a population that is less productive, a liability for our vision of a developed nation. Therefore, we must take care of the well-being of our children today, for a brighter tomorrow.

Prof Usha P. Raghupathi, the author,  is a retired Professor from National Institute of Urban Affairs.