Urban Wetlands and Floods

In city after city wetlands are being built over, for houses, markets and offices to meet the demands of an increasing urban population. As agriculture is being rendered unviable because of soaring costs of inputs, declining prices of farm products, lack of water arising from water diversions and drought conditions and low support prices, there is increasing scale of urban migration. Availability of cheap, migrant labour alongwith the government’s policies to invite investment in the manufacturing sector, opening up of more sectors for foreign direct investment and weakening of labour laws have led to ‘development’ of many suburbs into industrial corridors, manufacturing hubs and economic zones. This suburban expansion has translated into a take over of wetlands which, until recently, were tilled by farmers or were the abode of birds or covered by mangroves. The development of the suburb is usually accompanied by a property boom in the new area which leads to complete destruction of the local ecology and construction of offices, residential complexes, shopping malls, educational institutions, parking spaces and other infrastructure for the urban elite and middle class.

Farmers near urbanized areas find it more remunerative to build dwelling units on their farm lands to rent out or sell them. Because of high value of real estate, wetlands are viewed only as wastelands, nobody’s property and hence easily grabbed. The only protection to wetlands from this juggernaut unleashed by economic forces and human greed is government regulation of wetlands which is currently non-existent but for sporadic orders by the courts. But the destruction of wetlands by land grab has now gone beyond limits and the consequences are amply clear – the Chennai floods, the frothing lakes of Bangalore, the constant fear of inundation through the monsoons in Mumbai, Kolkata, Srinagar, the plummeting water table in cities. The writing is on the wall – wetlands have to be restored and preserved. In the following we look at evidence from cities across the country of the urgent need to protect our wetlands.

Chennai: The Chennai floods of 2015 demonstrated how destroying wetlands can come back to haunt the city with floods. According to government statements, the floods in Nov-Dec 2015 took 421 lives in Tamil Nadu besides destroying homes, property and farmland. The floods were a direct consequence of rampant, unregulated urbanization. The government, bureaucracy and urban planners colluded and allowed unplanned construction that completely destroyed the network of water bodies and drainage system in Chennai. The city had about 650 waterbodies, including lakes, ponds and storage tanks till about two decades ago; today it has less than 30.

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Chennai  residents after the devastating floods

In 2012, the government expanded the city’s limits. Wetlands that until recently irrigated paddy fields in the region were built over. Marshes gave way to an IT corridor. The Old Mahabalipuram Road was reclaimed from wetlands and turned into a four-lane expressway. SEZs were established and residential complexes and educational institutions also came up on the adjoining Pallikarnai Swamp.

The Pallikaranai marsh has shrunk from 80 sq km to less than 6 sq km over the last 30 years. Protests from environmental groups resulted in restricting construction over a part of the swamp after it was declared a reserve forest by the Tamil Nadu government. However this land is at present only a huge garbage dump. According to the city corporation, half of the solid waste of the city is dumped on the edge of the Pallikarnai Swamp.

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Flood water flows at the Metro Rail project site in Saidapet in Chennai

Chennai’s airport is built on the floodplains of the River Adyar. The city’s largest mall, Phoenix, is on Velachery lake-bed. Maduravoyal Lake spread over 120 acres has shrunk down to 25 acres. The Buckingham canal has been narrowed from the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit System. Buildings and roads have been constructed interfering with drainage courses and on catchments areas. The Second Masterplan prepared by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority has authorised construction over waterbodies and mangroves at many places.

At the time of heavy rains, wetlands in Chennai and everywhere play an important role in holding and then gradually draining out rainwater – a fact that has been ignored by urban planners. Because of the encroachment and reclamation of wetlands the rainwater ends up accumulating in what were once lakes and drainage channels which have since shrunk or been built upon.

The rivers in Chennai and the Buckingham Canal have little flow round the year since supply from their catchments is intercepted and stored in four reservoirs. Consequently the exposed river bed and floodplains have been encroached upon by housing colonies. But when it floods and the rivers swell across their banks, these buildings block the passage of water into the sea.

Experts, including the IMD (Indian Meteorological Department) have said that climate change is highly likely the reason behind the rains which inundated Chennai. Urbanization has to be planned and regulated to cope with extreme climate events. Politicians and civic officials blame the rain god for floods and refuse to learn lessons on planned urban development. 

Mumbai: A World Bank study named Mumbai among cities under the risk of most damage from flooding from rising sea levels due to climate change. Mumbai airport’s indiscriminate reclamation of low-lying land around the Mithi river has been responsible for the annual submergence of large areas around the airport. The polluted Mithi River and the destruction of mangroves are cited as one of the primary reasons for the July 26, 2005, deluge in Mumbai when 974 mm of rain fell in a single day. Little amends have been made since. On June 20 2015, when Mumbai got 283 mm of rain in a day, the Mithi River was again at the danger mark.

BMC’s Storm-water Drainage (Brimstowad) project undertaken to control floods is converting the natural creeks into concrete canals by building walls on both sides of creeks. This is stopping sea water from spreading into the mangrove areas and killing them. This will only aggravate flooding.

Mumbai’s wetlands near Sewri and other areas in New Mumbai are shrinking continuously on account of being treated as massive dumping sites for solid waste. Salt pans which hold a huge amount of tidal waters are being used for housing construction. Landfills, reclamation and quarrying of hills have altered the city’s topography completely. Mangroves are being systematically destroyed. Environmentalists have time and again cautioned that mangroves are the best natural protection against floods.

On March 11, 2015, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority gave its clearance for a 34-km eight-lane road along the Mumbai’s western coast. It will run on reclaimed land from Kandivali in the north to Nariman Point in the south passing above mangroves and rocky beaches and possibly wreck the livelihood of several fishermen and open spaces along the sea. The coastal road project shall cost Rs 12,000 crores and will cater to only 1.25% of Mumbai’s population who commute by private cars along the posh western coast. Many scientists and environmentalists have questioned whether the road is required at all pointing out that the government has not studied alternatives.

The Navi Mumbai International Airport airport is coming up near Panvel, a suburb of Mumbai. The site of the airport is a low lying land having 150 ha of mangroves and 340 ha of coastal marshland with 2 rivers – Ghadi and Ulwe flowing through it. Despite the warning signs from the Chennai floods, the government is fast tracking the development of the airport. Pre-development work costing Rs 3,500 crore includes diversion of the rivers – one of which cuts across the proposed runways and also flattening a hill, clearing and reclaiming marshy land in the Coastal Regulation Zone.  

Over the last 2 decades, the wetlands in Uran have given way to the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ) and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust – Special Economic Zone (JNPT-SEZ) after extensive reclamation by pumping sand and debris from nearby mountains. The wetlands, 60 kms from Mumbai, were home to around 200 species, including migratory birds and endangered species. With a new airport coming up in the vicinity, land sharks are constructing a slew of apartment buildings and rates have doubled in the past five years. The region has a fragile ecosystem and is prone to large scale erosion. The SEZ and residential complexes in the area are running a grave risk of extensive damage by flooding.

Kolkata: The East Kolkata Wetlands are a complex of natural and human-made wetlands lying in the east of Kolkata city. These wetlands have been devised by generations of fishermen and farmers to naturally treat the sewage of Kolkata city; this part of the city does not have a sewage treatment plant. Additionally, the nutrient rich sewage water in the wetlands sustains fish farming producing 10,000 tonnes of fish each year and extensive sewage farming of paddy and vegetables. It is the source of livelihood for around 30000 people. In 1992, the Kolkata high court ordered that the wetlands would be preserved for fishing and farming. Yet this ruling has not been enforced till date. Illegal developments are coming up all over the wetlands. New suburbs such as Salt Lake City and now Rajarhat have come up on reclaimed lands in the North 24-Parganas district in the north eastern outskirts of Kolkata.

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Urbanization slowly taking over wetland areas 

The real estate boom has triggered the disappearance of ponds in these areas. Several of these water bodies have been filled up illegally by criminals to build apartment buildings – a fact acknowledged by the police and Dum Dum municipality. The land prices have shot up in the belt in turn attracting more criminals to filling of ponds for construction. In Feb 2016, a pond at Nimta in North Dum Dum was filled up by dumping earth and garbage despite resistance by locals. A local environment society has alleged a nexus between political leaders and developers leading to inaction in safeguarding the water bodies.  In some cases, the government authorities themselves built slum rehabilitation dwellings on the wetlands only to evict them later in anti encroachment drives and hand over the land to developers.

According to one estimate, there were 8,700 water bodies in Kolkata and most are lost now. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) reported 1,634 water bodies in its 1996 records while in 2006 it reported 2,240 water bodies even though they are fast disappearing. An official at KMC revealed that the organisation does not have a fixed plan or budget to renovate water bodies.

The ‘khal’ or canal systems which have served as an effective drainage system for Kolkata for centuries, especially in the low-lying areas, are fast disappearing. At many places, they have been converted into parking spaces and extensions of the road. Canals along important roads such as the road from the city to Dum Dum airport have been taken up by real estate firms for building high rises. As a result, inundation of large stretches of the city is becoming common during monsoon.

Delhi and NCR: Delhi has, in the past, witnessed major floods in the Yamuna and the Najafgarh drain system. Delhi’s urban sprawl has been expanding much faster than its drainage infrastructure. During the past few years, flooding has often happened even after moderate rains due to the inability of the city drains to drain out the excess water. Additionally the drains experience reverse-flow when the Yamuna is in spate and flood low lying areas.

The Yamuna floodplains in Delhi have long seen crowded settlements of the poor and slum dwellers relocated by the civic agencies from the more posh areas of Delhi. However, the nature of encroachment in the last decade is doing large scale irreversible damage to the flood plains. Structures such as the Akshardham, the Common Wealth Games Village, the Millenium Bus depot and the Delhi Metro yard have invaded the banks of the Yamuna. Yet these elite encroachments have been regularized while the only structure removed from the river bank have been the slums of Yamuna Pushta inhabited by lakhs of Delhi’s poor. Large parts of the Yamuna riverbed along Noida, Greater Noida and Delhi have been encroached by land sharks and converted into real estate.

The Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority (YEIDA) was constituted with the express intention to initiate planned development along the 165 km long Yamuna Expressway from Gautam Budh Nagar district to Agra. The authority is developing over 2689 sq km in the Yamuna plains and has notified over a thousand farming villages.

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Wetlands around Dadri

Wetlands are scattered around Greater Noida in NCR which is being developed by YEIDA. The wetlands in Dadri, Surajpur, Dankaur and Greater Noida in Gautam Buddh Nagar district used to see numerous species of birds specially the Sarus crane and over a million migratory birds from central Asia in the winters. However the Dadri wetland does not have a single bird now. The wetlands at Dankaur have also seen rampant poaching and a real estate boom. The YEIDA has earmarked wetlands in Dankaur for residential purposes under its Master Plan 2031. These wetlands have remained under water through many years. Buildings in the area would be highly vulnerable to flooding.

The wetland at Surajpur was notified as protected in 2010 making it one of the last surviving wetland in Greater Noida. However the area is now under grave threat from real estate projects. In Feb 2016, the Greater Noida Development Authority felled over 100 date palm trees in the vicinity of the lake for road construction. The felling of trees will dry up the recharge zones of the Surajpur lake.

Environment activists have repeatedly demanded for protection of these wetlands. In March 2015, the National Green Tribunal had ordered the state of Uttar Pradesh to identify and declare its wetlands so that they are preserved. The efforts paid off with the YEIDA declaring on March 16, 2016 that it will develop 100 ha of marshland located in Dhanauri and other villages off the Yamuna expressway as wetland and bird sanctuary. So far the authority has identified only 40 ha for notification as protected area. However the authority has to go beyond mere declarations and take proactive steps to restrict unauthorised construction on the wetland periphery to serve the purpose. Gautam Buddh Nagar district saw a 55% reduction in areas under cover of forest and water bodies between 1999 and 2012.

The latest in the series of damage to the Yamuna floodplains has been the World Culture Festival by the Art of Living foundation. Leveling, filling of wetlands and compaction of soil by road rollers destroyed a thousand hectares of floodplains. The impact was heightened by the construction of access roads, pontoon bridges and a 7 acre stage and from the massive footfalls at the event. The area has also been denuded of vegetation. Such activities reduce the water absorbing and flood carrying capacity of the floodplain. As a result, water will flood adjoining low areas in the event of heavy showers. The Yamuna floodplains are the biggest reserve for freshwater in Delhi. Having been flattened, the capacity of the floodplains to recharge groundwater would have diminished considerably. Rainfall and floods can recharge about 30 cm of water every year in the floodplains. While AoL has unsuccessfully sought to establish its credentials by claiming to have undertaken river cleaning work (which was essentially a few days of garbage removal effort), the damage to the floodplains is an entirely different matter and it can take years to repair. In January 2015 the NGT had prohibited any developmental activity or construction on the Yamuna floodplains. But both the DDA and the AoL violated this judgement and the NGT set a poor precedent by ultimately allowing the event on payment of a Rs 5 crore fine, which too was not paid before the event.

Loss of wetlands in Delhi has made the city prone to floods. Delhi had 460 wetlands (another estimate mentions 600) over and above the Yamuna floodplain. But more than 60% of them don’t have water. Part of Delhi’s water needs can be met by making use of these valuable reservoirs. In Feb 2016, the damage of Munak canal by Jat protestors in neighbouring Haryana left Delhi high and dry revealing its complete dependence on water brought from long distances. If Delhi’s wetlands are revived, they can provide storage space for about 100 MLD of surface water and much more recharge, which can be utilized through groundwater extraction.

A majority of the water bodies are dry because their catchments have been encroached upon or the water channels feeding them have been stopped. Naini Lake in Model Town, Delhi which was once home to a variety of aquatic life is almost dead ecologically. Over the years with the construction of boundary walls, area reclaimed for constructing roads and walkways, cementing of its catchment area, the lake has lost much of its bird and animal life. Fish deaths are a common occurrence. The dirty lake is an invitation to further dump garbage. The locals along with other concerned citizens are campaigning for restoring the lake.

A 200-year-old water body in Dwarka was recently revived by the residents of the area and environmental activists. The residents also obtained water body status in the government records. Residents in Dharampura near Shastri Park say that a nearby pit dumped with muck and debris was once much larger small pond. A centuries-old pond in Asola village is being damaged by the construction of an electricity grid around the ponds. The NGT has granted a stay on further construction and directed the government to initiate action under the Wetlands Rules, 2010.

Rapidly urbanising Gurgaon, had about 120 Johads (ponds), which have either shrunk or have just vanished. The Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) in Feb 2016 inaugurated an initiative to rejuvenate a small set of these ponds.

Bangalore: From being famous as the Garden City, Bangalore has grown into an unplanned concrete jungle. Primarily because of the IT boom, offices of many multinational firms have come up in the city. The population of the city has doubled and residential complexes have been built to provide for the work force. Much of the rapid urbanization has come at the cost of the many lakes and tanks that once dotted the city. Over the years, the city has lost 79% of its water bodies. A survey of lakes of Bangalore by an IISc group has shown that most of the lakes suffered from encroachment and were dumped with solid waste and untreated sewage. Due to lack of STPs and poor condition of underground drainage, more than 42% of the total waste water generated in Bangalore flows into its lakes. Contaminated water in water bodies further contaminates ground water with carcinogens and people are consuming it.

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The popular Ulsoor lake in Bengaluru saw thousands of fish being washed ashore in March 2016 

Bellandur lake, the largest water body in Bangalore has been choked by industrial effluent and domestic waste. The lake flows out into the Varthur lake where massive spillage of froth onto the nearby road was witnessed in late April 2015. The lake spouted out white froth, at least five feet high. Locals around Bellandur and Varthur lakes said that the foam forms every year and is accompanied by unbearable stench. The toxic foam and froth is due to the presence of washing detergents in the sewage water. The detergents have increased the concentration of ammonia and phosphate.

In mid May 2015, parts of the foam in Bellandur lake caught fire and flames spread amidst the nearly four-feet-high froth for more than five minutes. The phosphorous, along with untreated effluents in the lake and methane from the sewage is suspected to have led to the fire.

While the city sewerage board blames the local residents for excessive use of detergents, the locals blame the board’s failure to treat sewage. Untreated sewage from many parts of the city flows directly into the lake, leaving it extremely polluted. Varthur Lake is at the tail end of a network of lakes in the city and sewage that flows into lakes from northern and southern parts of Bangalore eventually ends up in it. Officials admit that little can be done until construction of Sewage Treatment Plants along the lakes is completed.

On March 7, 2016, thousands of dead fish were washed ashore at the Ulsoor Lake. Study of water samples revealed very high ammonia content coming from untreated sewage, toxic to the fish. A scientist at IISc said that sustained flow of untreated sewage had depleted the dissolved oxygen which might have suffocated the fish. A trap meant to capture sludge from the sewage flowing into the river, is blocked with garbage leading to overflow of sewage. An official of the sewerage board informed that a site for setting up a STP to treat water entering the lake is yet to be identified.

Besides sewage flowing into lakes, solid waste and construction debris is simply dumped into many of the lakes. A ‘hillock’ of illegally dumped construction debris has come up next to the Kundalahalli lake threatening the lake with extensive silting and encroachment.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) has been receiving complaints from the public continuously. Some citizens have even threatened to approach the courts. The Pollution Board has alleged inaction by the civic bodies. Citizen groups have initiated conservation efforts including cleaning the lake surroundings, keeping a check on the growth of algae and ensuring that STPs are working.

A treatment plant at Jakkur gives reason to cheer as it lets the treated water into a nearby wetland. The wetland further cleans up the water and subsequently this flows into the Jakkur Lake. The lake is always full thanks to the treated waste-water unit. Authorities are also planning to fill up the Puttenahalli Lake with treated sewage water from adjacent apartment complexes.

Another cause of problem for lakes is encroachment. The Lakebed Encroachment Committee, a panel set up by Karnataka Legislature found that 10,472 acres of lake land spread over 1545 lakes in Bangalore urban and rural districts were encroached. The panel in its report on Jan 8, 2016 identified 24 private builders as responsible for over two thirds of the encroachment of lakes while the Bangalore Development Authority, is responsible for the rest.

Tahsildars of various taluks tasked with issuing notices to the lake encroachers revealed that several lakes identified as encroached by the legislature committee were completely ‘missing’ from revenue records. It appears that land surveyors and revenue department officials are acting in collusion with encroachers and facilitating encroachment by leaving out certain properties built on lake beds from their reports.

In pursuance of the High Court directions, the state government had passed an order in April 2010 banning all construction activity on the lakebed, formed the Lake Development Authority and set apart separate funds for lake development. However, the BDA passed a resolution to allow an illegal residential layout that it had formed on Venkatarayana Kere, a lakebed in Bengaluru South taluk. The BDA urged the State government to ‘legalise’ the layout on the grounds that it will have to spend Rs 24 crore to develop a new layout and pay compensation to those allotted sites and have houses in the layout. 

Hyderabad: Hyderabad used to be called the ‘City of Lakes’ and the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority lists 2,857 water bodies in its jurisdiction. Until about the 1980s, most of the lakes in and around the city were sources of drinking water, and a ‘buffer zone’ around them used to be seasonal farmland. But, following the development of the IT sector in the city, a majority of the lakes have been encroached and replaced by concrete structures or polluted with sewage and industrial effluents. 

Industries have been a major source pollution of the lakes of Hyderabad specially the famed Hussain Sagar Lake (HSL). Around 1,070 MLD of waste is discharged into the lake of which a fourth comes from the Jeedimetla Industrial Development Area home to many electroplating and drug manufacturing companies such as Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories. Companies in the area established the Jeedimetla Effluent Treatment Limited (JETL) in 1989 after a movement following the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. The companies have since increased their operations manifold. The installed capacity of JETL is only a fraction of the waste that flows into the HSL. Moreover it currently functions at less than half its total installed capacity and the treatment methods are incapable of treating the effluents generated.

The government has undertaken a plan to restore the HSL by pumping out all the water from the lake, removing the accumulated silt and waste and then allow the lake to regenerate. The project faces the challenge of disposal of the contaminated water and earth without polluting rivers downstream. Any such expensive efforts would be completely meaningless if the polluting industries are not required to stop releasing waste into the lake.

Hyderabad is under a grave risk of flooding during rains. The Kirloskar Committee, set up by the state government to study floods in Hyderabad city reported illegal encroachment of natural water courses, construction of housing colonies in the foreshores of tanks and disappearance of flood-absorbing tanks as major reasons. Another reason found to cause floods is the inadequacy of the drainage system and garbage dumped in open drains. Officials have reported difficulties in removing encroachments owing to court cases and political pressure. New areas of the city such as Gachibowli, the IT corridor of the city, do not have storm-water drainage.

Srinagar: The September 2014 floods, the worst in Kashmir in six decades, inundated Srinagar and at least 50 villages, killing 300 people and affecting millions across the region. Crops, plantations and livestock were also lost in the floods. Heavy rains inundating low lying areas, landslides, blocked roads and damaged buildings were witnessed again in Kashmir valley in the last week of March, 2015.

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A highly polluted portion of the Dal Lake in Srinagar

Loss of wetlands in the Kashmir valley has been, in no small measure, responsible for prolonged inundation resulting from rains. All the wetlands in Kashmir used to be inter linked and connected with the Jhelum river. During the summers, when the glacial melt would increase the flow in the river, the valley lakes and associated swamps would store excess water and prevent floods. Half of the water bodies in and around Srinagar have disappeared over the last century. Wular Lake in Kashmir’s Bandipora district and the famous Dal lake in Srinagar have reduced in size by almost 40% and lost much of their capacity to hold water.

Deforestation has led to excessive erosion in the catchment area. This has resulted in siltation in most of the lakes thereby converting them into landmasses.  Inflow of lakes has also gone down because of degradation of catchments and destruction of the drainage channels. Subsequently they have been reclaimed and built over by an expanding population. Municipal and urban development agencies of the government themselves reclaimed Bemina wetland and constructed government offices. Hundreds of acres of agricultural land were acquired during the construction of Qazigund-Baramulla railway project. The railway project worsened the flooding in the valley as there was no easy exit for the flood water with the elevated railway line preventing flow of the flood water into the Jhelum. Paddy fields of the valley have been buried under massive road projects and residential colonies. Flood channels have been encroached upon and houses have been constructed very near embankments.

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court, on Oct 28 2015 observed that various constructions had been illegally raised in prohibited areas indicative of the fact that the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority was colluding and facilitating illegal constructions.

Deeper lakes with greater capacity would prevent flooding in the Valley. However, the capacity of lakes to hold water has been reduced, and they are in need of intensive dredging and afforestation of catchments. Conservation of the Wular lake undertaken for a period of 4 years has been ineffective as sustained conservation efforts and more funds are required. The Centre has released less than a sixth of the amount estimated for conservation and preservation of the lake. Over 80000 who earn their livelihood by selling natural produce such as fish from the lake ecosystems are also struggling. Shrinking and destruction of lakes has affected tourism which contributes 15% of the state’s GDP.

Nainital: Lakes in hill cities are getting destroyed as more and more hotels are being constructed and trees are cleared in the surrounding catchment. Loss of vegetation increases the erosion of soil which finds its way into the lake. Rampant construction has plagued the natural recharge zones of the Naini lake in Nainital. Depth of the Naini lake is falling due to debris and silt deposited at its base. According to one estimate, as of 2015, the depth is being lost at the rate of about a meter annually. In Aug 2015, at least five truckloads of garbage were removed from the Naini Lake. The drains in the town and surrounding mountains are choked with plastic bags and sewage from households and hotels bringing a lot of garbage into the lake. Nainital’s drainage system was constucted by the British in 1890. However these drains have not been improved to meet the requirements arising from increased urbanization.

Guwahati: Urbanization is taking a toll on the wetlands of Guwahati. Because of increasing urbanization, in the last 2 decades, a majority of the city has been built on what was once wetlands and lowlands. Destruction of wetlands has been the cause for frequent flash floods in the city. The Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act was enacted in 2008 since the protection of wetlands was seen as key to control flooding. The Act notified 3 wetlands – Dipor, Silsako and Borsola-Sorusola. Yet, the wetlands continue to be destroyed by encroachment, dumping of garbage, pollutants and untreated sewage from the city.

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Abused & encroached Silsako wetland Assam 

Dipor Beel, a fresh water lake in Guwahati is an ecologically important wetland which hosts migratory birds, elephants and much biodiversity. The lake is now being choked by garbage as the entire city’s garbage is dumped on the edge of the lake. Stone quarrying is carried out on the hills along the lake. The denuded hills are prone to land slides which choke the lake with silt. Dipor Beel’s link to the rivers feeding the lake has been disrupted by construction of residential buildings, a national highway and a railway line. Of the 40 sq km notified in 2002, less than 10 sq km of the expanse of the lake survives. The avian visitors to the lake have dropped and the railway track has stopped elephants and other wildlife which used to come from a nearby reserve forest to forage the lake. The government has earmarked the Dobka Beel, connected to the Dipor Beel, for building a complex for the Assam Rifles. A complex consisting of a hotel owned by the Tata group, educational institutes, a tennis court etc has been built over the Silsako wetland. While the government has not come down on the encroachment by the rich, forced eviction of the hutments of the poor on the wetland has become its preferred way of making a farcical show of protecting the wetland.  Many of the poor encroachers are in fact construction workers who were brought in to construct the buildings on reclaimed wetland.

Kochi: Large tracts of wetlands and mangroves are giving way to various development projects in Kochi and adjoining areas including the LNG Terminal at Puthu Vypeen, Kochi metro, Kochi bypass highway, Goshree Islands Development projects and most recently, the Smart City project and the proposed electronic park at Amballoor. If the trend continues, Kochi would become a concrete jungle devoid of wetlands and greenery in the next 50 years.

Bhubaneshwar: Disappearance of natural water bodies has led to weather changes in Bhubaneshwar. The city does not have as many concrete structures or vehicles as compared to big urban cities yet the temperature shoots up unbearably during the summer becoming hotter than even Jaipur or Delhi. Though the city boasted of several water bodies in the past, some of them have been reclaimed and others have shrunk.

Amaravati: Amaravati, the new Andhra Pradesh capital, is being planned to come up on 217 sq. km. of prime agricultural land on land that floods thrice in an average year. The new city is located where Kondaveeti Vagu, a small river, joins the Krishna river. The Kondaveeti Vagu flows across the site and causes inundation over about 13,500 acres of land every monsoon season. During heavy rains, the upstream dams on Krishna let their water out flooding the farm lands where Amaravati is being planned. The Master Plan notes that urbanisation of the catchment area will increase the surface runoff volume. In Oct 2015, PM Modi laid the foundation stone of the city in a banana grove.

Expensive flood control measures are being planned to prevent flooding of the proposed urban area. One of the flood management strategies listed in the Master Plan is to fix a minimum platform height of 25 metres above sea level. If the land in the capital is so raised, surrounding villages will also have to raise their land at enormous cost to avoid being flooded. Krishna is a much bigger river than the Adayar in Chennai. A flood on the Krishna can cause great damage to life and property. It is unfathomable why the city is being built on such a flood prone spot at the cost of risk to food security of the region.

Jaipur and Udaipur: The Rajasthan state government passed the Rajasthan Lakes (Protection & Development) Authority Act in 2015 provisioning therein to constitute a development authority. In July 2015, the state government declared the city’s Jal Mahal and the Man Sagar lake as protected area and placed it under the Lake Development Authority. The authority was required to restrict activities that degraded the lake and peripheral construction in the lake. A private firm involved in a decade long legal battle to execute a tourism Project on the precincts of Mansagar lake would have been hit by the notification of protection of the lake. Only the authority had never been constituted! Taking cognisance of the deteriorating conditions of the lakes in Udaipur city, the Rajasthan High Court on Jan 4 2016 ordered the state government to constitute the Rajasthan Lakes Development Authority (RLDA) by March 1. The court observed that not constituting the authority had led to loss of any chance of conservation of the lakes.

Lucknow: A study of the Gomti river basin clearly illustrates the role of wetlands and the need to conserve them. Gomti is recharged through groundwater and wetlands including lakes and ponds and by tributaries, again, fed by wetlands. The water stored in the wetlands also aids recharge of groundwater. Twenty-seven wetlands in Sitapur and Lakhimpur kheri have small rivulets emanating which boost Gomti. Many of the wetlands are now shallow due to silt deposition and shrunk due to encroachment. In Lucknow district, at least 320 water bodies in Gomti river basin have gone extinct over the years. The tributaries of the river are dying and the river lacks ecological flow.

During monsoons, because of decreased capacity of wetlands, rain water runs-off flooding the Gomti plains. The wetlands, if conserved, would store rainwater which would recharge groundwater and revive the river, supplying it with water round the year. Big wetlands in Gomti basin in Sitapur have an enormous storage capacity which can meet the daily water requirement of Lucknow.

Water bodies within urban Lucknow have become largely extinct serving as dumping ground for solid waste, sludge and construction waste and receiving untreated sewage water. Water bodies in the periphery of the city are falling prey to reclamation by construction activity.

Regulation of wetlands: Even as the country is losing its wetlands at an alarming rate (38% loss in 1991-2001), our wetlands are scarcely protected. Boundaries of wetlands have not been accurately demarcated. In the rare cases that they are demarcated, the wetlands have not been notified. Government departments with overlapping jurisdiction over water bodies have all neglected them and blamed other departments.

In 2010, the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules were notified. Yet for the last four years, there has been a complete regulatory vacuum around the country’s wetlands. The National Wetlands Authority, formed post Wetlands Rules 2010, has not met since April 2012. The term of the Authority has ended, but no new authority has been constituted yet. The role of the National Wetlands Authority as envisaged by the Wetlands Rules of 2010 never inspired much hope of any genuine conservation of the wetlands.

Conclusion: Wetlands are rapidly being obliterated for use as land. The surviving wetlands have turned into receptacles for the mountains of garbage generated by the consumerist populace in cities. The regulatory framework, which can safeguard wetlands, is not in place despite the scale of destruction of the recent Chennai floods. The government is dragging its feet on notifying and protecting wetlands while abetting encroachment and reclamation of wetlands by land sharks for high value realty development within cities and speculative development in the suburbs. The government is itself constructing highways and parceling out irrigated farmlands and flood plains to accommodate private investment.

Wetlands act as sponges to mitigate floods, absorb rain water, facilitate recharge of ground water, maintain flow in rivers and purify water by absorbing pollutants. They are our best defense in these times when extreme weather events such as prolonged drought and sudden floods are becoming common. Wetlands are also important for their bio diversity, the complex food chain they create and are a source of livelihoods to many fishing communities and farmers. It’s high time that urban planners make preservation of wetlands a priority. Any further loss of wetlands would be disastrous.

Anuradha uv.anuradha@gmail.com, SANDRP

3 Comments on “Urban Wetlands and Floods

  1. Restoring & Rejuvenating wetlands is the key to mitigate flood risk in urban agglomerations. Wetlands are ecosystems to Disaster Risk Reduction. Well very precious info.It is the time to bring dynamic changes in School & colleges syllabus of Environmental Studies,focusing on the greater invisible economic potential understanding & assessment.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Because of high value of real estate, urban wetlands are viewed as wastelands, are easily grabbed – COUNTERVIEW.ORG

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