Written by Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, Hitesh Vaidya, Victor R Shinde
It is common knowledge that many rivers across the globe are succumbing to development pressures. The situation is no different in India. For example, according to an estimate, 63 per cent of sewage flows into our rivers untreated every day. It is even more common knowledge that urban areas have largely been responsible for the deterioration of our rivers. In the quest for socioeconomic development, cities have bitten the hand that feeds them. What, however, may not be very common knowledge is: how do cities set things right? Cities have been a huge part of the problem, and will need to be a part of the solution as well.
The solution starts with a fundamental understanding that a river cannot be managed in isolation. It is a system. A system that encompasses diverse elements from the river itself, to its surrounding ecosystem and related services, and the livelihoods, cultural, spiritual and recreational activities it supports. When the upstream and downstream connotations are added to this, the understanding of river systems becomes more holistic and robust. Once city officials develop this understanding, it will become resoundingly clear that managing an urban river is not only about cleaning up the pollution. River clean-up activities are end-of-pipe solutions that mean nothing unless the drivers of the problems are fixed.
This means that urban river management is all about arriving at transformative solutions that are not restricted to merely the river zone. Several of these may, in fact, need to cover the entire city. To make this happen, a mix of both engineering and planning-related approaches are required. While this may make urban river management sound like an onerous and complex task, in reality it is not.
This is because a number of interventions that benefit river management are usually already captured through plans or projects that may already be operational in a city. A case in point is strengthening the city’s sewerage system, which typically is the mandate of the annual plans of urban local bodies. Managing urban rivers to some extent, therefore, involves forging synergies with existing plans and initiatives. As the adage goes, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Through this article, we recommend a 10-point agenda for city officials to manage the rivers within their stretches.
Undoubtedly, a basin approach of managing rivers is the ideal scenario. However, cities can only manage what is within their jurisdiction. The idea is to look at cities as inter-related “operational units” that will help realize the vision of an overall river basin management plan.
The first step is to ensure effective regulation of permissible and non-permissible activities in the floodplain. A floodplain is defined as the area inundated by a flood that occurs once in a fixed number of years — typically a hundred years for major rivers. Many cities enter into an uncomfortable territory with such definitions because a good portion of their floodplains are already built upon. There are no easy solutions here. Cities must be prepared for a long haul as this could necessitate resettlement and strategic redevelopment. The notification of the National Mission for Clean Ganga, as an authority under the Environment Protection Act, lays down certain principles and guidelines for floodplain protection, regulation, and demarcation in the Ganga Basin. These could serve as a useful reference for cities across the country in the long run. Marking a no-development zone on either side of the river edge and enforcing strict regulations through the city’s Master Plan is a good starting point. The National Green Tribunal’s regulations for different river stretches could be referred to decide on an appropriate width of the no-development zone.
Second, tackling pollution of the water body. City administrations understand this well given that both the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) have helped a number of cities set up sewage treatment plants and associated infrastructure. The challenge is in ensuring “last pipe connectivity”, where individual households are connected to the system. While the general inclination of city administrations has been towards centralised sewerage systems that are easier to manage, these are cost-intensive. Exploring the use of faecal sludge and septage management systems, nature-based solutions, and other decentralised options to complement centralized systems is the need of the hour. This will be particularly useful in peri-urban areas where centralized systems are not feasible. A crucial point here is to strengthen the water quality monitoring mechanism. While Central and State Pollution Control Boards monitor the water quality of rivers, there is hardly any monitoring in water bodies or natural drains. Cities like Delhi conduct some monitoring in drains, but this is usually at just the outfall. This may tell us how much pollution is entering the river but provides no data on its source.
Third, is to rejuvenate all water bodies and wetlands in the city. In many cities, these are intrinsically connected to rivers either through their drainage patterns or groundwater flow. Rejuvenating water bodies and wetlands can go a long way in reducing the burden on rivers. They improve groundwater recharge, which can, in turn, help augment the water supply of a city, and reduce the stress on rivers. Similarly, rejuvenated wetlands are natural “wastewater treatment plants” that can significantly mitigate the pollutant load entering a river. The recreational benefits that these two interventions offer are an added incentive to the city. A classic win-win deal for the city.
Fourth, is to ensure a rich and continuous riparian buffer. A riparian buffer is a longitudinal stretch of vegetation on either bank of a river, whose significance cannot be over-emphasised. It acts as a shock absorber for the river and its aquatic ecosystem from detrimental developmental activities. The buffer zone also protects the urban area from the impact of floods. Ideally, the riparian buffer should be a continuous stretch with a width of 12 to 15 meters. Smaller cities may be able to achieve this faster. However, the present conditions should not dictate future ambitions, and cities must take up whatever is possible today, and aspire for the ideal condition in the long-term, syncing it with the Master Plan.
Fifth, is to ensure maximum good quality return flow to the river. This is based on the premise of a city making its contribution to maintain the environmental flow of the river. In its simplest form, environmental flow is water required by a river to sustain its natural habitat. Usually a city has very little control over the environmental flow in the river, given that this is regulated by national or state authorities. However, this should not absolve the city of its responsibility. There is no definitive guideline of how much a city should give back to the river as this depends on site-specific factors. For example, Delhi returns 267 million gallons of treated wastewater to the Yamuna every day. This figure was established looking at the need of the Yamuna and the ability of Delhi to address the need. Likewise, other cities will have to take stock of the rivers within their stretches, and decide upon an optimal contribution after adjusting for in-house uses.
Sixth, is to set ambitious targets for reuse of wastewater. By now, it has become abundantly clear that water is a finite resource, and cannot be taken for granted. As cities grow, it is imperative for them to acknowledge and respect the threshold of stress that these resources can naturally handle. Encouraging rainwater harvesting, switching to water-efficient fixtures, and maximising the reuse of wastewater are excellent ways of relieving the burden on the already overworked rivers. But purely in terms of potential, wastewater reuse scores above the others because 75 to 80 per cent of the water supplied to a household returns as wastewater. This vast volume is nothing short of a new resource of water, and should be treated as one.
Seventh, is to harness the economic potential of the river. Cities must begin to realise that a river has tremendous economic value through the ecosystem services it provides, and livelihoods it can support. Already cities across the globe have boosted their economies through river-centric activities such as cultural tourism, water sports, river markets, fisheries, navigation, and several others. The bottomline is that rivers can help cities progress up the economic ladder, which every city aspires to. Needless to say, the scale and extent of such activities must account for the carrying capacity of the river.
Eighth, is to develop eco-friendly riverfront projects that re-establish the lost connect between urban residents and the rivers. Riverfront projects are a wonderful interface between the city and its rivers. They need not be large massive structures like promenades, condominiums, plazas, etc. Small-scale projects such as parks, picnic spots, urban forests, ghats and herbal gardens can be equally effective in bringing back the masses to the river.
Ninth, is to inculcate river-sensitive behaviour among residents. Citizen support is vital for long-term sustainability of urban river systems and the success of any initiative by urban bodies. This support becomes far easier to solicit when citizens are aware of the issues at hand, and how they can help address those. Cities need to develop a dedicated strategy to spread awareness about the benefits of healthy rivers through innovative dissemination mechanisms like games, films, app-based content, etc. This will be the stepping stone for the desired behavioural change.
Finally, the tenth point is to proactively engage residents in river management activities. This is important to make that shift from “residents as spectators” to “residents as actors”. This also sends out the message that river management cannot be the government’s job alone. Residents will need to step and share the responsibility. A popular avenue for citizens to contribute to river management activities is by monitoring the river’s health periodically through a set of indicators. There are good examples of citizen groups, and even schoolchildren, in both developing and developed countries that have been doing this successfully. This is a good starting point, and coupled with other activities like cleaning up riverbanks, can set the stage for both residents and city officials to enter into more formal modalities of engagement with stepped-up ambition.
It is important to point out here that there is no universal model to manage urban rivers. Every city is unique. This is why, each city’s plan to manage the river within its stretch will also be unique. The 10-point agenda presented above is meant to serve as a guiding tool for cities to discover their own models. As city officials begin this journey of reimagining the rivers within their stretches, they will realise that the process is far easier than it appears. Most cities already have a good enabling environment at the top in terms of relevant legal and regulatory mechanisms. Furthermore, there are a number of low-hanging fruits that can be targeted under each item of the 10-point agenda. These, coupled with the right intent, can certainly set the stage for the envisaged transformation.
A river is, unquestionably, among a city’s greatest assets. Our cities must start treating it as one.
(Mishra is the director-general of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Vaidya is the director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and Shinde is team leader of a joint NIUA-NMCG project that seeks to promulgate river-sensitive development in cities)
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