More than 'AMRUT', Indian Cities Need Nature-Based Solutions to Revive Themselves

Given the high level of economic inequality in the country intensified by successive droughts in recent years, a rethink of the human-environment relationship is required.

Water dripping from a tap. Credit: sidelong/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Water dripping from a tap. Credit: sidelong/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

June 17 is World Day to Combat Desertification, and has been observed by the UN since 1995. Desertification is not a self-explanatory term: it does not refer to the advance of deserts. The UN defines it as “the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by human activities – including unsustainable farming, mining, overgrazing and clear-cutting of land – and by climate change.” This year’s theme is ‘Inclusive cooperation for achieving Land Degradation Neutrality’.

Different methods to reduce desertification and combat climate change have been examined, including reforestation, sustainable water management, natural flood control methods and other ecological responses to climate change, especially in cities. As the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts it, nature-based solutions (NBS) are a group of such “interventions which use nature and the natural functions of healthy ecosystems to tackle some of the most pressing environmental and socio-economic challenges of our time”.

The NDA government’s Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) is aimed at rejuvenating the growing number of large cities in the country through infrastructure- as well as management-reform-based interventions. Unfortunately, the policy and planning community for Indian cities is yet to integrate the potential of NBS for building resilience and achieving sustainability goals. Concrete examples of such solutions, especially relevant to rapidly growing cities, include conservation of urban wetlands as a form of flood control; promotion of urban agriculture toward food security, which also generates livelihood options for migrants coming to the city; and regenerating urban forestry to combat air pollution.

According to the European Commission, literature on NBS brings together and builds upon previous knowledge strands on biodiversity and ecosystems, sustainable urban development, natural resource management and climate change response. However, at the core of the practice of NBS is the need to rethink the link between people and nature in cities in order to address problems of urbanisation.

Tools at city-scale which are cited specifically as NBS are predominantly from European cities. However, practitioners from complementary fields such as landscape architecture have also studied city-based NBS from their particular perspectives. For example, a recent survey of cities from across the world showed that they are reinventing their relationships with their rivers.

The concept of NBS still needs to be re-crafted for it to be applied and inform policy in the Indian context. Currently, the fractured relationship between city residents and urban nature in India is studied from the lens of urban commons or environmental governance failure. However, there is a recent shift towards acknowledging the role of nature in cities for resilience-building , in particular to inform urban planning and policy-making in India.

Commons such as lakes and wooded groves were the centrepiece for rural communities. Today, as many villages in the peripheries of expanding cities are absorbed, these commons are replaced by real estate development or fenced parks. The shared quality of the commons which allowed the poorer members of communities to harvest natural resources in these spaces, has been lost.  At the same time, local residents are being replaced by migrant communities whose demands and expectations from these spaces is different. In this dynamic situation, deciding what is the best form to conserve and access nature, is often not a straightforward decision.

In high-growth cities which provide little in the way of quality of life for a majority of their poor and disadvantaged households, NBS for climate change may not appear too urgent as compared to addressing basic services backlog, or attractive for ease of implementation as compared to engineering-driven solutions unless backed by public programmes that recognise the potential for NBS.

A mission for urban transformation

The AMRUT programme was launched in 2015 mainly to provide universal coverage of basic services and civic amenities as well as to reduce pollution in cities. It is divided into eight components: water supply, sewerage, septage, storm water drainage, urban transport, green spaces and parks, administrative reforms and capacity building. Aspects of sustainability are found in each of the components but are not necessarily linked to one other. For example, the ‘water supply’ component includes the rejuvenation of water bodies for drinking and recharging of groundwater; however, the role that urban lakes play in maintaining biodiversity and regulating urban floods is not acknowledged.

Urban commons must be conserved not just for recreational purposes, but also their cultural, associational and spiritual value. These could be lakes where religious events such as idol immersions are conducted, or groves which would become places of worship or a space where ancestors are honoured. The instrumentality of each component is important because that determines whether a park or a lake becomes or stays a living part of the urban cultural ecology, or functions as a fenced green island amidst a concrete jungle.

Within the AMRUT mission, resilience is understood in the context of securing projects against potential disasters. While the intention is to attend to the vulnerability of the poor and the disadvantaged, the potential for building the city’s resilience at several interlinked scales remains unaddressed. Waste-recycling and -reuse as well as better accountability of water in supply networks is encouraged, but mostly through structural norms for the capacity of engineering solutions, applied at the design stage of the “service level implementation plan”. Technical solutions such as bulk infrastructure for stormwater drainage and transporting sewage, which are capital intensive and highly disruptive of urban functions during their construction phase, may be deemed appropriate at the scale of mega cities. However, low-cost solutions that preserve and build upon existing natural assets in small and medium-sized urban settlements of India, as well as in rapidly urbanising peripheries of big cities, also exist.

In place of a higher-capacity storm water drainage network that makes poor use of land, building material and financial resources, natural flood control techniques could be utilised. A balance of porous surfaces and paved surfaces on the ground could be mandated to substantially reduce storm water run-off. These measures could be accompanied by enforcing wetland conservation and strict prohibition of formal and informal settlements on flood plains and lake beds. Recent flooding in both coastal and non-coastal cities – Chennai (2015), Uttarakhand (2013), Srinagar (2014, 2015), etc. – have proven how disastrous building upon flood plains can be.

Ray of hope

As the urban population expands, problems due to urbanisation will only get bigger. Water scarcity on the one hand and flooding on the other are potential threats as a city’s footprint grows. In addition, increased health risk due to human agglomeration in under-serviced and hazard-prone locations in cities and their vicinities are also a concern as the majority of those impacted are without access to modern medicine or private healthcare. Multiple deprivations such as lack of nutrition; lack of proper housing and tenure; and informal employment further erode the capacity of the poor and disadvantaged to recover from extreme events such as heat-waves and urban floods.

AMRUT guidelines require that projects under this mission seek convergence with the ‘Smart Cities Mission’, ‘Heritage City Mission’, ‘Digital India’ and ‘Housing for All’, among other nationally promulgated missions aimed at urban development. The hope is that cross-fertilisation with pre-existing schemes and programmes will enable ‘learning from the past’, to inform a mature interpretation of urban resilience. This means building the capacity to work with nature at the scales of households, city infrastructure and regional networks. Successful initiatives from the cities of Gorakhpur, Indore and Surat, three medium-sized settlements that were part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Research Network, could also provide a useful resource. For example, Surat, which is a flood-prone city in western India, got city stakeholders to collaborate and manage water in the upstream reservoir on a regular basis. Recognising the contribution of poorly planned development to incidents of urban flooding, Surat’s Municipal Corporation no longer permits builders to construct on the floodplain.

Given the high level of economic inequality in the country intensified by successive droughts in recent years, a rethink of the human-environment relationship is required. As AMRUT is adopted across hundreds of cities in India, a huge opportunity for NBS may be lost unless city managers work with local residents across social and economic classes to understand how nature – urban forestry, wetlands and urban agriculture – which is already a part of their lives, increases urban resilience. City solutions that can thrive and regenerate without capital-intensive inputs from state agencies will hopefully help define the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of the Habitat III conference to be held in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. The document will guide the efforts around urbanisation of a wide range of actors — nation states, city and regional leaders, international development funders, United Nations programmes and civil society — for the next 20 years. Inevitably, this agenda will also lay the groundwork for policies and approaches that will extend, and impact, far into the future.

Cities which are able to embrace nature by weaving built infrastructure with nature-based infrastructure will emerge as winners in the long term. City-scale NBS are informed by the condition and potential of nature in a city, dynamics of demographic and land-use change, lived vulnerability to extreme events, and projected impacts of climate change. Within Indian cities, NBS will need to be adopted at the stages of design (of buildings and fixtures) and planning and upgrade (of new and existing settlements).

Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar is Lead, Practice, at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. She has a keen interest in rural-urban dynamics and dispossession and distress associated with migrant labour.