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 along with 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 takeover 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.