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Nature-based solutions in Indian cities

15 Jul 2016 - 15:30

Nature-Based Solutions may remain untapped in Indian cities despite the dedicated focus on resilience in city-rejuvenation strategies

By Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar

Cities are considered at the forefront of sustainability practices aimed at addressing the impacts of global environmental change and socio-economic inequality. Topping the list of urban resilience practices is the use of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) to alleviate climate change and other urban stressors.

What is NBS?

NBS bring together and build upon previous knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystems, sustainable urban development, natural resource management, and climate change responses. However, at the core of their practice, NBS rethink the links between people and nature in cities in order to address problems of urbanisation. NBS relevant to cities include restored and constructed wetlands, preserved urban forestry, greenfield afforestation, greened brownfields, the greening of grey surfaces such as rooftops and walls, and natural flood control techniques. In its broadest sense NBS could also include engineered solutions which are inspired by nature.

For the NBS concept to be of application value and policy relevance in the Indian context, it will need to be recrafted. In India currently, the fractured relationship between city residents and urban nature is studied from the lens of urban commons or environmental governance failure. There has, however, been a recent shift towards acknowledging the role of nature in cities for resilience-building, in particular to inform urban planning and policy-making.

A compendium of solutions for resilient cities

During the Adaptation Futures conference I learnt that the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN) had recently launched its second assessment report, supported by more than 100 case studies from the developed and developing world. These studies showcase climate mitigation and adaptation efforts of cities from across Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and Asia, and the initiatives within them cover a range of services and sectors: transportation, public health, housing, energy security, water management, solid waste, and disaster preparedness. Many of these efforts are centered around NBS.

However, temporally truncated case studies tend to glaze over the historical developmental challenges faced by urban settlements in developing countries, particularly India. In high growth cities which provide little in the way of quality of life for the majority of their poor and disadvantaged households, NBS for climate change may not appear too urgent (as compared to addressing basic service backlogs), or attractive (for ease of implementation, as compared to engineering-driven solutions).

Bangalore, Surat and Gorakhpur contribute to the growing compendium of approaches for urban planners, city officials, policy makers and city leaders to adopt. For instance, Bangalore was part of a study that tried to understand how different cities use adaptation options to address shortages in water supply. Underpinning these options are the ways that a city planner views a city: as a closed system with limited, external inputs (such as the Cauvery River), or as an open system with multiple water supply options that exist within city boundaries (such as groundwater that can be stored in lakes and retained in wetlands, or rain water that can be harvested through the built environment). The position of a city in the river basin was found to be a major determinant of water adaptation strategies adopted.

A mission for urban transformation

In 2015, the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India launched the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), mainly to provide universal coverage of basic services and civic amenities and reduce pollution in cities, as a national priority. While the AMRUT mission courageously aims for urban transformation, it does so without fully considering what such an endeavor would require, both in terms of socio-economic equity, as well as a re-connection with nature.

The AMRUT mission is divided into eight components, namely: water supply, sewerage, septage, storm water drainage, urban transport, green spaces and parks, reforms management (capturing elements of mission governance) and capacity building. Aspects of sustainability are found in each of these components, but are not necessarily linked to each other. For example, the ‘water supply’ component includes 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.

Recommendations for green spaces and parks designed for the urban elite are blind to the fact that urban commons must be conserved, not just for recreational purposes, but also their cultural, associational and spiritual value. The instrumentality of each component is important, because that will determine whether a park or a lake becomes, or stays, a living part of the urban ecology, or functions as a fenced green island amidst a concrete jungle.

A limited role for resilience in AMRUT

Within the AMRUT mission, resilience is understood in the context of securing projects against potential disasters.The potential for building the city’s resilience at several interlinked scales remains unaddressed.

AMRUT guidelines recommend building resilience against urban floods through construction and maintenance of bulk infrastructure such as storm water drains. However, smart, 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 are not mentioned. For example, in addition to an effective storm water drainage network, natural flood control techniques could be used. A balance of porous and paved surfaces on the ground could be mandated, that would reduce stormwater run-off substantially. These measures could be accompanied by strict prohibition of formal and informal settlements on floodplains and lake beds. Clearly, designing stormwater drains for the most extreme rainfall event is wasteful of land, building material and financial resources in multiple ways.

Multiple risks to urban resilience

At a recent orientation programme conducted with officials stationed at urban local bodies in Rajasthan, an arid to semi-arid state of India, IIHS faculty learnt about the practical limitations of translating a mission for urban transformation in water-constrained cities of India. A majority of the officials expressed that the two biggest threats faced by their cities (such as Jaipur, Bikaner, Bharatpur and Ajmer) were water scarcity as the urban population expands, and not surprisingly, urban floods as the city’s built-up footprint grows.

The pattern of urbanisation being followed in India means that natural assets within older, established core parts of the city are diminishing as lakes and water bodies are built over, urban forests become dumping grounds and highly productive, peri-urban agricultural land is converted into special economic zones (Karle SEZ, North Bangalore among others), with dubious societal benefits. All these aspects of urbanisation render our cities and their inhabitants vulnerable to urban floods and water scarcity.

A ray of hope

Given the high level of economic inequality in the country - intensified by successive, devastating droughts in recent years - a rethink of the human-environment relationship is required. As AMRUT gets 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 already exists in their midst as urban forestry, wetlands and urban agriculture, and can be worked with to increase urban resilience. City solutions that can thrive and regenerate without capital-intensive inputs from state agencies, will also be those that last. Cities which are able to embrace nature, by weaving built infrastructure with green 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).

 

This article was also published in The Wire and in The Nature of Cities