Some cities have lost up to 70% of wetlands. Will Bhopal face the same fate?

Wetlands created by Raja Bhoj 1000 years ago face extinction today, thanks to the new Bhopal Development Plan. The plan threatens, among other things, increased tiger presence in some eco-sensitive areas.

“Wetlands are seen as waste lands, to be encroached and built upon,” says Himanshu Thakkar, water expert and coordinator at SANDRP. “There is no effective legal protection for most of our wetlands. In fact, there are no updates on maps of wetlands. There is no system for clearance or monitoring when wetland components undergo a change.”  

No wonder then that India is losing its wetlands at a rate of two to three per cent each year. Going by the Wetlands International South Asia (WISA) report, from 1970 to 2014, major cities that have reported a massive loss of wetlands.  are Mumbai with 71%, Bengaluru 56%, Ahmedabad 57%, Hyderabad 55%, Delhi/NCR 38% and Pune 37%.

Now Bhopal is heading towards a similar disaster, thanks to the recently released Bhopal Development Plan for 2031.

Founded in 11th century by King Bhoja of the Parmara dynasty, Bhopal has been famous for its traditional water bodies and supply systems. Bhoj wetland, a Ramsar recognized site created by King Bhoja, was formed by a combination of two lakes: upper lake (also known as Bhojtal) and lower lake. King Bhoja utilized Bhojtal to fulfil the city’s water needs. Even today, the upper lake remains the lifeline of Bhopal, meeting 40% of the city’s water supply.

The upper lake stretches across 23 wards of the city, which is 18% of the city’s total area and hosts 20% of the total population. This makes a large part of its catchment area fall within the urban limits, making it vulnerable to the hazards of urbanization.

Read more: Bhopal left with water for two weeks, thanks to neglect of iconic Upper Lake

Death of wetlands

India is home to 42 Ramsar recognized wetland sites, third after Japan and China. Eight per cent of this is situated around sprawling urban centres which have expanded rapidly and haphazardly over the last decade and more, putting immense pressure on urban ecology and natural resources. This has put fragile Indian wetlands at great risk, further exacerbating the effect of climate change on cities. 

Vadodara and Hyderabad are typical examples of this trend. According to a research by city based NGO, Vadodara has lost 30.5% of wetlands between 2005 to 2018. The study focussed on 48 wetlands situated inside the city and revealed that wetlands in eastern Vadodara witnessed maximum degradation. This does not include the vanishing of small water bodies on which there is absolutely no data available.

Hyderabad in turn got the dubious distinction of being ranked fourth in wetlands loss, as per a WISA report. Inefficient waste management, rising pollution and unchecked and unplanned city development are destroying the city’s wetlands. Famous water bodies such as Osman Sagar, Husain Sagar, Mir Alam Tank and others are choking due to encroachment, which is affecting the city’s water supply drastically. 

Conservation relegated to the background

The latest addition to the list of concerns is BDP 2031. Succeeding the Master Plan of 2005, the new BDP piously calls for zoning-based planning and focuses on improved urban mobility. The plan talks about keeping sustainability and liveability at the core of it.  Developing transit oriented development zones along the metro, conservation of the old city heritage and notifying a commercial mixed use zone are some of the key points in the plan.

But the plan only has a brief mention about conserving the catchment areas of Bhojtal. Besides containing some other controversial provisions. Like the 45-mile outer ring road on the southern periphery of the upper lake. If implemented, this project will severely impact the thick and dense plantation of the wetland. “The 45 m road might not be a good idea, as it can endanger the fragile habitat of migratory birds,” says Abhijeet Saboo, city-based urban planner, who is also working on the upper lake conservation study since 2012. “The upper lake is a blessing for the city as it is probably the only water source in any city which still provides water of potable quality, after a process of basic filtration,” he added.  

The plan also proposes a second 18-mile road on the northern front of the lake, besides creation of residential land for a population of around 80 lakh. BDP also talks about creation of riverfront and encouraging recreational/tourism activities.  

The plan does mention “regulated development” in the sensitive catchment area, but gives no details on how this is to happen. 

Experts and citizens believe this will lead to unabated construction and end up choking the upper lake. The city is already facing a problem of illegal marriage gardens that have mushroomed close to the upper lake, threatening its catchment areas.

“We cannot impose a blanket ban on all developmental activities of the city. But zone-wise planning in the catchment area can help mitigate the risk,” says Abhijeet. “The study on upper lake conservation provides for three priority-based zones. None of these zones should be opened up for residential use, as this may give rise to problems of sewage discharge and rampant groundwater extraction. This way we can keep the Bhoj wetland healthy.”

The area around Kaliyasot dam in Bhopal has reported high movement of Tigers. Pic: Rishabh Shrivastava)

Citizens and activists have also raised concerns regarding the enlarged planning area mentioned in the BDP. In the 2005 plan, the planning area was 601 sq km. whereas BDP 2031 expands the planning area to 1017 sq. km. Concerned citizens claim that the enlargement has been done to include villages falling within the catchment area and to implement the uniform development policy.

What this means is that while land which in the 2005 document was classified as either protected area or some other type which required certain extra permissions for development will now lose that protection and can simply be added to the development provisions without any special clearance.

Another complaint is that the draft of the plan was released during the lockdown last year resulting in little public consultation in the preparation of the final report.

Wildlife activists are also up in arms over the BDP provision of constructions in the sensitive areas of Kaliyasot and Kerwa dam, which have witnessed an increased tiger presence and other wildlife in recent years, thanks to the forest department’s conservation efforts. Any developmental work in the region could increase human-wildlife conflict incidents and disturb the sensitive habitat. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had written a letter to the Chief Secretary raising a red flag on the issue.

These are just a few issues that has made BDP 2931 such a controversial document. Concerned citizens and experts have demanded several changes to the plan’s provisions in its present form, arguing that if implemented, it will result in extreme damage to the city’s ecology and liveability.

Read more: A wetland on just 1% of Bandra Kurla Complex could lessen Mumbai’s flooding problems!

Benefits of wetlands

  1. Source of water supply and food
  2. Water purification and detoxification of wastes
  3. Play a key role in flood control 
  4. Act as physical buffers to climate change events 
  5. Provides cultural and aesthetic services
  6. Brilliant in carbon sequestration 
  7. Hotspots of biodiversity 

Toothless regulatory bodies

The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, which was updated last year to ensure strict implementation of the rules and ensure that habitat of wetlands is intact, have done very little to protect wetlands. Regulatory bodies like the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority only have advisory powers under ther 2017 Act. Also, the current law on wetlands ignores the participation of local communities in governing and monitoring. As have mega urban schemes like Smart City and AMRUT which all have ignored the aspects of sustainable management of wetlands. 

Lack of scientific data, imagery, maps and other relevant tools makes the fight even tougher. Way back in 2011, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) observed that there exists no baseline data on water quality of wetlands and no monitoring mechanism for the same. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) too carried out a National Wetland Inventory and Assessment using remote sensing satellites in 2006-2011 and mapped around two lakh wetlands in India. Compared to this, very little progress has been made in identification of wetlands by the respective states.   

Going further, conservation efforts are mostly centred around the notified Ramsar sites, ignoring the smaller and non-recognized water bodies.

“There needs to be a statutory requirement for mapping the wetlands regularly,” says Thakkar. “Also, the statutory protection must extend to all wetlands and their components that may lead to a change in the overall state of wetlands”.

Also, the application of ‘wise use’ principle by the state government has been criticized by experts for weak regulation of wetlands. Under the principle, wetlands can be used for all the services that municipalities provide, but in a sustainable manner. The states instead have used their discretionary powers in applying the ‘wise use’ provision, ignoring the element of sustainability and conservation while making use of the wetland ecosystem.  

India now needs a well-defined National Urban Water Policy to guide the urban water sector. “It should define what a water smart city should be,” says Thakkar. “No city should be required to use any additional external water sources till it exhausts all the local potential, including protection and rejuvenation of wetlands.”

Though given that urbanisation is only likely to intensify in the near future, the future of the country’s wetlands looks bleak. 

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