Since time immemorial, Indian cities have come up either on riverbanks or near surface waterbodies or over groundwater reservoirs, making the presence of water a founding feature of settlements. Historically, waterbodies played a vital role in defining the cultural heritage of a city. They provided public spaces for recreation, gatherings and religious activities, as well as a range of livelihood options, like fishing and boating. This dependence, in turn, ensured that these waterbodies were cared for and used by local communities, and fostered a water focused identity of the place. However, economic liberalisation in the early 1990s triggered extensive economic, physical and social changes in India’s cities at an unprecedented rate and scale. Massive expansion of urban areas and a stark population spurt was not supported by extension or upgradation of urban services or preservation of natural ecosystems like urban waterbodies (urban blues). This led to water shortage, flooding and watercourse pollution, which are signs of stress where developed areas have a troubled interaction with natural water-related ecosystems and where, conversely, water is viewed as a risk or a nuisance rather than an asset or an opportunity.
After almost three decades urban blues still remain a challenge for India, as they are difficult to replace or restore once lost or damaged. Though there has been some movement towards restoring and conserving urban blues in Indian cities, the planning, design and implementation aspects, still face a vast number of challenges. While some ad-hoc investments have been made towards restoration and conservation, the approach so far is devoid of a scientifically structured systematic and holistic approach.
WRI India (WRI) is currently working extensively on science-based systematic and holistic restoration and conservation of urban waterbodies to bring back clean water, biodiversity and people. For example, WRI has been assisting the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) and the Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MAUD), Government of Telangana recently in developing a holistic high-level Restoration Action Plan (RAP) for the iconic Hussain Sagar lake. The RAP was presented at World Urban Forum 10 (#WUF10) organized by UN-Habitat during February 2020. Based on our learnings from a number of similar projects, we suggest these five things to consider prior to embarking upon a restoration and conservation efforts of urban waterbodies.
1. Join the dots
The health of any waterbody, i.e., quality and quantity of water and sediment flowing into it, is dependent on the nature of the catchment from where water flows into the waterbody. In case of cities, such catchment is characterized by growing urban development and associated built infrastructures like concrete surfaces, roads, sewerage infrastructure along with natural infrastructures like green spaces, natural drains, etc. With rapid urbanization, the characteristics of such catchments is fast-changing by way of planned or unplanned urban expansions and associated built infrastructure developments, absence of adequate sewerage infrastructure and unscientific modification of natural infrastructure. Urban waterbody restoration plans must identify these existing conditions, connections, changes and future development plans before embarking on restoration and conservation activities.
2. A waterbody is as clean as its catchment
Various projects undertaken across Indian cities for waterbody restoration use a siloed approach and focus on restoring waterbodies individually, without any consideration of the larger catchment that impacts the health of urban waterbodies. Various anthropogenic forms and activities such as industries, healthcare facilities, commercial and residential spaces generate different streams of solid and liquid wastes. In the absence of appropriate collection and treatment infrastructure, these solid and liquid wastes can easily enter into the natural hydrologic system and severely impact the quality of water and sediment inflow into waterbodies. Additionally, absence of governance and regulatory control mechanisms as well as inappropriate human behavior in the catchment can cause significant pollution loads into downstream waterbodies. Current restoration and conservation projects of urban waterbodies in India are not successful in long run as these are either not designed to handle ever-growing pollution loads coming from the catchment or to control the catchment pollution loads at its source or a combination of both. Future restoration projects should consider these catchment scale water quality challenges while developing a restoration action plan for a waterbody. It is recommended not to restore one waterbody at a time but to restore all connected waterbodies in a catchment or micro-catchment.
3. No water is bad water
Urban catchments in India are no longer able to provide sufficient freshwater to the urban waterbodies. This is due to mixing of stormwater with treated/untreated wastewater and solid wastes. In most instances, urban water utilities intercept and divert this mixed polluted water load to downstream drains and waterbodies located beyond urban boundaries to keep the urban waterbodies clean. This strategy is counterproductive as it deprives the waterbodies of required inflow quality water and sediment which are essential for their good health. This phenomenon begs the question: Why waste this readily available source of water, when it can be treated and reused to keep urban waterbodies healthy?
Indian cities should start considering sustainably treated wastewater as a critical inflow resource to keep urban waterbodies healthy. Keeping polluted water out of sight—therefore, out of mind—is not sustainable. A combination of green (for example, constructed wetland) and gray solutions can be used in a decentralized way, to sustainably treat wastewater at the source. The treated water can then be easily reused for non-potable urban applications like recharging waterbodies or irrigating associated green spaces.
4. Planning for the big picture
City utilities often meet with revenue shortfalls and the inability to bear the capital and operational expenses associated with restoration/conservation projects. Interlinking restoration/conservation of urban waterbodies with mechanisms to capture direct and indirect benefits can provide required incentives to cash starved city utilities to pursue these restoration and conservation efforts. These projects must be integrated with larger citywide planning and economic development initiatives, as well as resilience planning efforts to accrue added socioeconomic, environmental, health and climate benefits for urban residents.
5. Ambition for vibrant living water
A waterbody hosts different types of ecosystems: aquatic, ecotone and terrestrial. These ecosystems provide multiple benefits to urban environment as well as advantages and livelihoods to urban residents (fishing, farming, bird-watching, etc.). Conventional restoration projects typically introduce significant proportions of hardscaped gray infrastructure to ensure economic benefits. But this approach also completely ignores a waterbody’s direct impact on multiple ecosystems. While economic benefit generation is an important factor while trying to manage capital and operational expenses of a restoration project, it should not be done at the cost of disengaging people from the ecosystem. That could cause disconnection of such development projects from the people due to loss of attraction towards nature, and in turn lead to loss of livelihoods and the economic value generation, which are typically expected out of such restoration projects.
By using these five theories of change, new waterbody restoration projects can strive to achieve multiple and interconnected benefits of restored and healthy waterbodies, ecosystem services, increased biodiversity and public spaces for all. An integrated approach combining gray infrastructure with natural infrastructure (such as urban waterbodies) can also increase the resilience of urban spaces towards extreme weather events such as flooding or water scarcity.