Time for a ‘sponge cities’ Mission
#GS3 #Sustainable #Development #Urbanisation
In the wake of torrential rains in the third week of October in Hyderabad, over 50 people died. Almost 10 years ago, scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, built climate change adaptation tools for Hyderabad.
- However, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority of that time did not use it. Such tools are held in trust by many civil society organisations across the country in many of our cities. Anticipating significant increases in rainfall, they offered tools to build solutions.
- We neglect the issues of incremental land use change, particularly of those commons which provide us with necessary ecological support — wetlands. This framing also disavows the role of local communities in managing local ecosystems — people with traditional rights for fishing and farming.
- Urban floods of this scale cannot be contained by the municipal authorities alone. Nor can they be dealt with by the State government. They cannot be managed without concerted and focused investments of energy and resources. Such investments can only be done in a mission mode organisation with active participation of civil society organisations at the metropolitan scale.
The idea of ‘sponge cities’
- We need a mission that mitigates flood risk and provides a pathway to water security. The most promising idea across the world at this time appears to be the idea of “sponge cities”. The idea of a sponge city is to make cities more permeable so as to hold and use the water which falls upon it.
- Sponge cities absorb the rain water, which is then naturally filtered by the soil and allowed to reach urban aquifers. This allows for the extraction of water from the ground through urban or peri-urban wells. This water can be treated easily and used for city water supply. In built form, this implies contiguous open green spaces, interconnected waterways, and channels and ponds across neighbourhoods that can naturally detain and filter water. It implies support for urban ecosystems, bio-diversity and newer cultural and recreational opportunities, These can all be delivered effectively through an urban mission along the lines of the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) and Smart Cities Mission. On a top priority, such a mission should address the following.
- Wetland Policy – In most of our lakes, the shallow ends, which often lie beyond the full tank level, have disappeared. These shallow ends are best characterised as wetlands; sometimes owned by private individuals, other times existing as ecological commons. Regardless of ownership, land use on even this small scale needs to be regulated by development control.
- Watershed Management – Watershed management and emergency drainage plan is next. This should be clearly enunciated in policy and law. Urban watersheds are micro ecological drainage systems, shaped by contours of terrain. We need to consider natural boundaries such as watersheds instead of governance boundaries like electoral wards for shaping a drainage plan. The Metropolitan Development Authorities, National Disaster Management Authority, State revenue and irrigation departments along with municipal corporations should be involved in such work together.
- Ban against terrain alteration – Lasting irreversible damage has been done to the city by builders, property owners, and public agencies by flattening terrain and altering drainage routes. Without doubt, terrain alteration needs to be strictly regulated and a ban on any further alteration of terrain needs to be introduced. To improve the city’s capacity to absorb water, new porous materials and technologies must be encouraged or mandated across scales.
- Stop the blame, start action – Acknowledging the role of different actors for the city can create a practical space to begin this work. Doing so will not just help control recurring floods but also respond to other fault lines, provide for water security, more green spaces, and will make the city resilient and sustainable. The constant search for a scapegoat to blame, while a few people try what they can, limits our capacities and only creates cycles of devastation.
- We must not allow nature, human conduct, and urbanisation to be mystified and rendered as trans-historic villains. We can learn to live with nature, we can regulate human conduct through the state and we can strategically design where we build. We need to urgently rebuild our cities such that they have the sponginess to absorb and release water without causing so much misery and so much damage to the most vulnerable of our citizens, as we have seen.