Playing with ecosystems

Flood waters in Srinagar are receding. But after the death toll has been estimated, the compensation for human life and economic loss paid out, and the city slowly limps back to normalcy, it is time to get to the most challenging but fundamental task of fixing the largely ignored ecosystem services. 

The tragedy is that the same people who were hit by the unprecedented floods will soon be back to their normal routine recklessly exploiting the fragile environment. Forgetting that the natural disaster was man-made, and there is a course correction that is immediately required, we have invariably failed to learn from disasters.

I saw this happening when Maharashtra and more particularly Mumbai was hit with flash floods in 2005. While 5,000 people were killed across Maharashtra, the deluge of Mumbai, the financial capital of India, donned the headlines.

Many blamed the 18-km long Mithi river, which runs through densely populated and industrial areas of Mumbai and carries the overflow discharges of Powai and Vihar lakes to the Arabian Sea at Mahim Creek, responsible for the floods. Even the Mithi River Development Authority (MRDA) acknowledges: “The Mithi river used to serve as an important storm water drain but has been reduced to a sewer over the years.”

Before Mumbai, Hyderabad was hit by devastating floods in 2000. But interestingly, in 2000, the Geological Survey of India admitted “the August 2000 flood of Hyderabad cannot be considered as a result of the Nature's fury. It starkly exposes the deficiencies in planning of urban habitats in growing cities.

Paradoxically, when Hyderabad was lashed by 24 cm of rain in 24 hours in August 2000, the adjacent districts of Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda were under the grip of drought-like or dry weather conditions due to scanty rainfall.” 

Just to give you an idea of how unplanned urbanisation is taking a heavy toll. The Geological Survey report for Hyderabad states: “One such blatant violation of the urban development norms is conversion of a water tank known as Masab Tank, situated at the southern foothill limit of Banjara Hills, into currently a thickly populated residential cum commercial area. Further, the downstream side of the tank has been totally converted to residential areas such as Vijaya Nagar colony and Shanti Nagar. Thus the active channels of streams that existed on the downstream side of these areas and colonies have disappeared.” No one did anything, and once again Hyderabad faced flood fury in 2009.  Srinagar, Bangalore, New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati... the story is same everywhere.

Climate blame game

It is however very convenient to shift the blame to climate change. At a time when people have become so used to climate aberrations, and have begun to club everything under the broader head of climate change, that I find the blame game shifting to reasons beyond your immediate control to be escapism and self-defeating.

If the temperature goes up, blame it on climate; if the rains are late, blame it on climate, if the heat season prolongs, blame it on climate. Like for all the ills in our society we blame the politicians, similarly for all the development-induced disasters we don't want to take the blame on ourselves.

After the Uttarakhand disaster of July 2013, which again was blamed on climate change by many experts, I had thought that the nation would sit back and draw some lessons. But nothing like that happened. In fact, the moment you raise the issue of unplanned urbanisation, a chorus rises accusing you of being anti-development.

Reckless exploitation of the hills continues unabated. Srinagar too has been a victim of unplanned growth destroying the last hope for any meaningful development. The natural ecosystem has been deliberately plundered, and local communities left to bear the resulting costs. As a Chandigarh-based newspaper explained: “The bowl-shaped lay of the land in Srinagar is such that once the Jhelum waters breach, there is nowhere for the floodwater to drain. This is a well-known fact that everyone has chosen to ignore.”

We are being repeatedly told that 50 per cent lakes, ponds and the wetlands in Srinagar have been converted into residential and commercial places. Such has been the neglect that Wular lake, Asia’s largest freshwater lake in Bandipora district, has shrunk by 87.58 sq km:  the famed Dal lake in Srinagar by 12 sq km.

Rapid siltation has reduced the average depth of the lake to 3 mts. The 165-km long Jhelum river is pushed to the brink, and it obviously was waiting to retaliate one day. These lakes and wetlands provide extraordinary development support in the form of ecosystem services. But since these are priceless activities, planners remain dismissive about the immense role ecosystem play in charting long-term sustainable development.

It is time we put a price to ecosystem services, and include that in our future development programmes. A model for this has been worked out by Adelaide University and the UN Environmental Programme. Local communities need to be paid to protect biodiversity, forests, wetlands, and the ecosystem. This provides them additional income avenues, and at the same time protects the environment. But first, the state government must acknowledge the role ecosystem services play and rebuild the city accordingly.

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