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Resilience through caring for nature in times of transition

9 Nov 2016 - 13:30

By Dr. Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar

New apartment buildings encroach unashamedly, increasing flood risk for the entire area. Real estate development at this scale is mostly beyond citizen groups’ sphere of influence. Photo credit: Sumetee Gajjar

Dr. Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar, from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), looks at the various aspects of city life that expose residents to daily environmental risks.

Resilience is often discussed in terms of recovery from or response to disasters, and of communities which are more vulnerable to the impacts of a range of environmental disasters. However, there are aspects of city living, especially in developing countries, which expose residents across different social groups to ongoing and daily environmental stresses. These may not fall immediately in the category of disasters, but their cumulative impact over a few years can have disastrous impacts on city residents’ health and well-being. Urban floods affect several city wards and garner significant media coverage and political commitments to avoid similar events in the future. City planners and decision-makers’ response to urban floods in India rarely encompasses nature-based solutions. Real estate development continues unabated, drains are cleared and their capacity is increased, and other technical solutions are sought—solutions in which communities have a minor role to play.

The biggest disaster being averted by community initiatives is that of non-engagement with nature by city residents.

At the same time, communities continue to face lower-intensity, chronic risks through consumption of polluted water; water scarcity during drought years; dangerous road conditions; and poor air quality due to vehicular emissions in established parts of a city, and to new construction and open fires in fast urbanizing city peripheries. Given the way in which rapidly transforming cities of the Global South are managed and governed, it is hard, if not impossible, to hold specific institutions accountable, or to expect redressal. In particular, pollution of ground water is of critical concern, as it is linked to practices and behaviours of multiple actors, some of whom benefit from regulatory slippage, while others are unaware of their contribution to poor water quality.

How, then, do we support communities, who embattle city conditions to avert disaster, in building resilience? Resilience is certainly not just about infrastructure. In fact, aspects of resilience such as flexibility, adaptability, safe failure, and learning are to be found in solutions that are, at their best, a combination of infrastructural approaches and sustained human engagement around a matter of public concern. Such initiatives end up creating a sense of place and ownership towards nature in the city, and can be leveraged to approach environmental issues which are otherwise difficult to raise and discuss.

Plantation drive on a Sunday morning, organised by Legacy school teachers and parents. Photo credit: Sumetee Gajjar

To reflect a bit more on this, I draw upon my experience of being part of Jal Mitra, a volunteer group established to conserve a lake and its surrounds in North Bangalore. Initially called Guardians of the Rachenahalli Lake, this group was convened for the first time on 1 August, 2015. The last year has produced multiple lessons on channeling the positive force of citizens’ time and commitment to cope with the stresses of living on the expanding edge of an Indian megacity. A humble endeavour, which thrives on volunteered weekend time, Jal Mitra has grown to more than 100 members and has executed quarterly plantation drives involving school children, cleared alien vegetation, constructed a perambulatory dirt track for joggers and cyclists around the lake, facilitated multiple users of the lake waters, and hosted awareness events on public holidays. Volunteers monitor breaks in the fence, encroachments by builders, instances of waste dumping, and other forms of pollution; they also take it upon themselves to inform relevant government agencies in the event of such activities.

Jal Mitra continually notifies additional residents of local apartment buildings to help grow the circle of awareness. Jal Mitra engages with the private sector to contribute through corporate social responsibility, and with local landlords to build sanitation facilities for residents of informal settlements. The neighbourhood has witnessed major public works, including the laying of high capacity storm water drains, bridge construction, and the resurfacing of roads over a period of two years. During this period of diverted routes over muddy lanes and around dug up ditches, residents were regularly exposed to vehicular congestion and potential accidents, including life-threatening falls. The potential risk of a disaster in these circumstances was a deeply erosive force on collective well-being. In this context, the existence of a community group that is dedicated to sustaining a local natural asset, for no personal gain, is as strong and positive a force as the lack on such a group during infrastructural upheaval.

Environmental stewardship at a local scale in Bangalore is rarely able to shift development pathways that continue to isolate lakes from natural streams, or to prevent tree-felling for road expansion. Disturbances to nature are common, and usually irreversible. The biggest disaster being averted by community initiatives is that of non-engagement with nature by city residents. Because when that happens, the remnants of open spaces (green and blue), which are yet being cared for, will finally disappear.