Author : Neha Verma

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Jul 21, 2023
Coherent management and governance of urban wetlands in India needs to be initiated to secure the urban ecological balance and add to the city’s economic value
Urban wetlands in India need urgent attention The fact that India has thrived as a cradle of civilisation since the Indus Valley Civilisation era, and has witnessed multiple great kingdoms rise, can be largely attributed to its rich and diverse form of water bodies. Many existing cities have come up on river banks (such as Kolkata, Allahabad, Pune, Ahmedabad, Patna), while some cities have developed by the coast (such as Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi). Rivers, ponds, and other waterbodies also form an integral part of cultural and ritualistic practices for the people in the Indian subcontinent. Even so, the status of the waterbodies in India and their functional relationship with people (access to clean water, sustainable water usage) remains highly unsatisfactory, as is empirically captured by relevant policy reports and media coverage.
The Chennai water crisis in 2019 highlighted how Indian cities are vulnerable to shortages of usable water and poor water resources management.
Poor water quality reduces the access to clean drinking water for low-income communities living close to the water bodies. NITI Ayog’s ‘A  Composite Water Management Index’ published in June 2018, stated that more than 600 million people in India face a water crisis. The Chennai water crisis in 2019 highlighted how Indian cities are vulnerable to shortages of usable water and poor water resources management. Likewise, the disastrous impacts of heavy rains in Mumbai on July 2005, which claimed around 1,000 lives, were essentially a fallout of the poor management of the Mithi River flowing through the heart of the city. Given this scenario, India must step up its management of urban waterbodies and wetlands to mitigate climate risks and fulfil the obligations of making cities ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ under the Sustainable Development Goals.

India’s urban wetlands – Vital but threatened

India’s Wetland Rules 2017 define wetlands areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, including lakes/ponds, oxbow lakes, riverine wetlands, tanks, lagoons and mangroves, performing critical ecological functions for wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, carbon storage and water regulation. They have tangible environmental and economic benefits through flood control, fish production and the treatment of wastewater (such as sewage). Many Indian cities are endowed with wetlands, such as Kolkata (East Kolkata Wetlands), Mumbai (mangroves), Chennai (Adyar flood plains) and Guwahati (Deepor Beel Lake).
EKW’s fresh harvests form a crucial food chain supply for markets in Kolkata and its suburbs while providing livelihood to many farmers and fisherfolks.
Guwahati’s Deepor Beel serves as the flood-prone city’s natural stormwater drain. Besides providing a critical interface between Guwahati and its surrounding forests, rivers and hills ecosystems, Deepor Beel is a prominent source of livelihood for local communities dependent on fishing and traditional farm practices. The lake also hosts migratory birds and is frequented by Asiatic wild elephants and other wild species from nearby forest areas to consume aquatic vegetation making it a popular tourist destination, especially during winter. The East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) is the world’s largest natural resource recycling ecosystem, treating 600 million litres of sewage and wastewater daily. EKW’s fresh harvests form a crucial food chain supply for markets in Kolkata and its suburbs while providing livelihood to many farmers and fisherfolks. The prices of EKW harvests are affordable for most sections of society because of naturally-procured nutrients from the wastewater and the wetlands’ proximity to the markets. Despite providing significant ecological services to Kolkata and Guwahati, rapid and unplanned urbanisation has threatened EKW and Deepor Beel’s environmental balance. Peripheral reclamation of both these ecosystems for construction has contributed to increased flooding in both cities during monsoons. The negligence of wetlands in cities across India presents a similar scenario. A cursory glance at increased urban flooding in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru over the last few years shows the impact of encroachment on wetlands in the form of haphazard real-estate development. The disposal of untreated sewage is another factor threatening the natural functioning of the wetlands. In most cities, disregarding the historical use of land and water bodies in urban planning and expansion is responsible for increasing extreme climate events such as excessive rainfall and high summer temperatures. Notably, the climate risks in cities are spread unequally, increasing the vulnerabilities of the marginalised groups. However, in recent times, even residential complexes in Chennai, inhabited by middle- and upper-middle-class people, are facing the brunt of reckless construction on floodplains.
The Government of India has taken steps to address wetlands-related issues at a national level.

Integrating wetlands in urban planning

The benefits of wetlands are recognised globally, yet they remain a subject of apathy in Indian cities. Although many government and state agencies have wetlands under the domain of responsibility, unclear and overlapping jurisdictions between them have caused significant losses of urban wetlands (for example- wetlands in Delhi are under the jurisdictions of the Delhi Jal Board, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, Public Works Department, Archaeological Survey of India, and Forest Department). Even on paper, barring the Forest Department and Delhi Jal Board, none of the other departments are supposed to hold any expertise in the management of wetlands. In recent years, the Government of India has taken steps to address wetlands-related issues at a national level. In 2016, the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 was bought under the umbrella of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. In January 2021, the National Mission for Clean Ganga formulated a local stakeholders-focused toolkit for wetland management in cities. The Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation launched the census of waterbodies in 2018-19, published as a Census Report of pan-India waterbodies. Out of the enumerated 24,24,540 water bodies, 97.1 percent (23,55,055) are in rural areas, while 2.9 percent (69,485) are in urban areas. The census, while a much-needed step, has been critiqued by experts for its scope and methodology. The list of water bodies under the Rules is vast and open-ended. While this leaves room for including more forms of water bodies under the category of wetlands, it has shockingly not reported encroachments on water bodies requiring protection measures, especially in and around urban areas. For example, the census does not report rampant encroachments on critical and eco-sensitive urban wetlands such as EKW and Deepor Beel. Notably, the intergovernmental treaty Ramsar Convention considers both these wetlands as critical wetlands needing conservation and protection. The census also fails to account for the urban wetlands that have disappeared due to human activities in the past few decades. While the media has regularly highlighted such omissions, they have also been challenged through litigations. The government of India must urgently resolve such lapses to enable holistic management of India’s wetlands.
The Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation launched the census of waterbodies in 2018-19, published as a Census Report of pan-India waterbodies.
At the urban level, wetlands management should be assigned to local municipalities to increase public accountability. Involving local citizens and students in wetlands management through awareness and engagement programmes would impart a sense of responsibility and purpose among the people towards conserving and protecting wetlands. Making urban wetlands viable for pisciculture would create new employment opportunities for the fishing communities such as Kolis (in Mumbai) and Namasudras (in Kolkata, Guwahati). Coherent management and governance of urban wetlands in India to secure the urban ecological balance, provide protection from climate risks and add to the city’s economic value through employment generation in multiple forms. A successful model of sustainable urban wetland management in India will have lessons for densely populated cities across the world facing similar challenges.
Snehashish Mitra is a Fellow with the Urban Studies at the Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.