If only cities can see wetlands

It is time we realised that a water body is not an ornamental luxury or a wasted land

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 03 December 2015

Sixty People died in a building collapse in Chennai last fortnight. There is much more than the municipal incompetence that needs to be fixed to avoid such tragic incidents. This building was located on Porur lake, a water body that provides services like groundwater recharge and flood management to an otherwise water-starved city. If you care to ask the obvious question how construction was permitted on the wetland, you will get a not-so-obvious response. Wetlands are rarely recorded under municipal land laws, so nobody knows about them. Planners see only land, not water and greedy builders take over.

It is time we realised that a water body is not an ornamental luxury or a wasted land. A city’s lake is its lifeline. Take Chennai, located at the tail end of all rivers. It has spent a good part of the past two decades squabbling over rights to the Cauvery water, fighting with farmers over withdrawal of water from Veeranamlake and also depleting groundwater aquifers around the city to quench its own thirst.

Today it has two choices: desalinate seawater at a price difficult to recover from its citizens or harvest every drop of rain and hold it in lakes, ponds and underground tanks for use in the dry period.

imageIt was also in this city that its then and current chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, had launched an aggressive rainwater harvesting drive. In 2001, it introduced bylaws that made rainwater harvesting structures mandatory in all multi-storey buildings. In 2003, it extended this provision to all buildings and then went about monitoring compliance. All this meant the people understood the value of rainwater. A study by Stanford University on the impact of the initiative found that where without any intervention only 9 per cent of the rainwater went back to the aquifer, with rainwater harvesting it could go up to 30 per cent. This showed up in the bottom line. In the worst months of drought of mid-2000, groundwater was available in many household wells and the tanker market was reduced to a third.

This result was even without optimising on the big potential of rainwater harvesting offered by lakes and ponds that act as sponges. Water experts record over 1,500 water bodies in the city and its vicinity. These are the real opportunity to secure water future. Unfortunately, in the next 10 years, government’s focus moved from the millions of little water collectors to implementing the one big solution of making seawater potable. It has set up two plants of 100 million litres per day, but it is struggling to pay for this water, which costs Rs 50-60 per kilolitre. As electricity costs go up, so does the cost of desalination. Chennai water utility MetroWater, till recently the country’s only water agency with balanced books, is now finding itself in the red because of its expensive hardware for supply.

So Chennai needs to do what all cities must—undertake a detailed survey of the wetlands and then bring every water body and its catchment under legal protection. The Wetlands Conservation and Management Rules issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change are toothless and meaningless. What is needed is to ensure that city development rules include a comprehensive list of water bodies and their catchment. Any change of this land use should not be permitted. Even this will not be enough unless the city values the water this land gives.

The Central government should provide funds for water supply to only those cities that have brought their own water sources under protection. The cities must show they have optimised on local water potential before claiming access to water from far away sources. This will reduce the cost of supply. The city can invest the saved money in treating sewage, which pollutes the lakes and ponds in the first place. It is this vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

The one water cycle cities need to ensure runs smoothly is where water turned into waste because of human use is converted back into water fit for human use.

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  • In Hyderabad district alone

    In Hyderabad district alone 932 water bodies were identified in 2001 covering around 20,000 ha. Now more than half of them disappeared. Even the remaining half are partially encroached/filled. Even the River Musi was filled or encroached by around 50%. All these are now cesspools of poison. Among these water bodies 169 are more than 10 ha area. To protect these 169 water bodies HUDA brought out a Notification in May 2000 -- excellent order -- but the very same HUDA told to the high court in our case on Hussainsagar that this notification is not legally bounding.

    The two reservoirs that supply drinking water -- covered by 4000 ha --, namely Himayatsagar & Osmansagar are plagued by illegal activities in the catchment area against the GO111 -- which was upheld by Supreme Court in 2000 -- by both public and private sectors. Water inflows have come down by 80% and polluted waste flows increased. If anybody ask bureaucrats or politicians on this: they reply back saying that we can get plenty of water from Krishna and Godavari.

    The total ground water in twin cities is polluted by sewage & industrial pollutants. Slum dwellers are increasing day by day. Unhygenic conditions are rapidly growing. Health hazards are increasing.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Apropos what Sunita has

    Apropos what Sunita has written......the apathetic condition of Wetlands & lakes & how we as Citizens treat them & how Municipal bodies neglect them is a sordid story.

    In Baroda ( Vadodara) around circa 1915 there were 30 waterbodies/lakes in the inner areas of the city which must have been astounding too for Patrick Geddes who visited Baroda in 1915 & 1916 to prepare a report on the Development & Expansion of the City.

    In fact Geddess was so struck by the Lakes/ wetlands within the that he has mentioned this in the first paragraphs of the Report - highlighting on the Unique environmental assets which the city Possessed, advocating a Lake / Tank Park system for the city- which was an ecological asset as well as a flood control mechanism.

    We as Planners & Urbanists have failed to push for their development & integration in development Plans of the cities & in seeing them as Cultural & Environmental- Ecologial assets of the city.....

    The result today is for us to see....blocked catchments result in flooding in many parts of the city/ lowering water tables of the city- so excessive pumping energy & a huge depletion of fresh water sources / storages & resources

    The Story of Baroda is the story of most towns & cities....& it is nothing short of shameful

    Sanjeev Joshi


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • We have been saying over and

    We have been saying over and over again that Wetlands, All Wetlands,wherever they are need to be brought and notified under either the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 or some other such law like the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Besides the legal protection wetlands get under these laws, there will also be brought under the Forest Departments which despite all their muddling are still the best bet to ward off hungry political and corporate hyenas?

    The consistency with which the Supreme Court and the High Courts have supported these Laws, may actually at least save the remaining wetlands.

    Wetlands also continue to disappear in rural India quite alarmingly, mainly because there is no field department mandated to protect them.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • We have no option but to

    We have no option but to restore/reclaim the water bodies before its too late and they disappear- water resource management at grass root is required to mitigate recurring floods and draughts.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • In coastal cities of South

    In coastal cities of South Gujarat, city effluent join the nearest perennial rivers and not in any closed water body (pond). All most all the Indian rivers, though, revered and regarded as mother are most polluted due to anthropological reasons alone. Aquatic cleansing of water bodies could have been possible, if there would have been contribution of organic waste alone, but, industries spewing chemical waste are proving fatal for aquatic life. This is clearly visible, at any river delta, where effluent water from all the upstream cities joins the seas, killing fish and other aquatic life, definitely, this water is not potable and is the cause of many diseases.

    In this part of Gujarat, government has taken steps to fence the water bodies, so that no one can pollute or enter into it. But the irony is, catchment of ponds is generally obstructed by the metal roads at its periphery and lakes are to be filled by the canal water, that water which was actually meant for irrigation purposes. Ponds which are supposed to recharge ground water, are now lined with plastic, to store water for longer time, so as to supply domestic water in cities. Water quality of such ponds is satisfactory. However, due to industrial growth of cities, population of cities have swelled, which is beyond the capacity of cities to supply quality water.

    No government could solve the problem, unless there is a political will and social acceptance to keep a check on increasing population, heavy fines to the polluters who discharge wastes in water bodies, peoples participation and acceptance to preserve the neighboring water bodies. Unless, Hindu philosophy of revering nature in true sense is brought into action, the very survival of humans will be in danger due to want of potable water and unpolluted food.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply