Can waterways provide the key to developing Kochi?

Upgrading the port city's western waterways and canals can have a positive impact on not just transportation, but also the city's economics and culture, finds new research at ICRIER. But what are the challenges to look out for?

What is common among urban waterways, economics and culture? All three are intertwined, and can complement as well as transform each other. But they can also lead to weakening urban systems if they are poorly planned, as the Indian port city of Kochi has shown.

However, the city has seen recent attempts at overall upgrading of systems and researchers from the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) emphasise the role that the city’s waterways can play in this makeover effort.

Kochi’s crisscrossing canals and rivers linked to a backwater system can significantly impact its socio-economic and cultural development. But that potential has remained unrealized, thanks to poor urban planning and the unmitigated threat of climate change for years, points out Sandeep Paul, Researcher at the ICRIER.

As Paul tells Citizen Matters, canals and waterways have historically been part of the transport system in Kochi, but it is only now that efforts at upgrading the city are “multi-modal and innovative.”

“Currently, the city is growing, and the Metro waterways are supporting it. They not only aim to revive the waterways transport but also treat it as a part of an integrated public transport network that would bring together various modes of transport. Still, a lot of effort is being invested currently by the government to improve the city, so this is the best time to align the upgradation of waterways with holistic development,” he explains.

Urban waterways

A research paper written by Zeba Aziz, Indro Ray and Sandeep Paul explores the role of waterways to promote urban resilience in depth. Being the backbone of a city’s landscape, urban waterways support its commerce, economy and community development, along with its connectivity and rich, diverse ecosystems. However, weak planning, mismanagement of industrialization and urbanization can downgrade it.

So far, little attention has been paid to urban water bodies and wetlands, as in India, planning is very land-centric. There is hardly any law to protect water bodies. Even those that exist, such as the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, have left out most of the urban water bodies, so cities have in fact mushroomed over water bodies.

The Kochi case

At the outset, Kochi has an impressive list of features. With a population of over 600,000, this is the biggest city in the state and the second largest in the western coastline next only to Mumbai. There are seven cities and 45 census towns nearby, but it is also one of the fastest growing urban centres. Then again, as a coastal city, it is most likely to be affected by climate change, unless managed with efficiency and careful planning.

Being the biggest contributor to the state’s GDP, Kochi also houses the largest number of industrial units, due to increase in investment in the electronics industry and a number of IT parks and special SEZs. The port is one of 12 in the country and its major exports include tea/coffee, coir, cashew kernels and seafood. Due to its local heritage, natural setting in the backwaters and key tourist attractions, the city’s waterways generate both income as well as employment. But as Paul explains, Kochi’s waterways have been badly underused.

The coastal city is an employment hub with more than 50 per cent trips made to the region for work. Labourers come here from far-off distances. It has the highest number of motor vehicles with valid registrations. Every year, the city adds the maximum number of vehicles. All of it has led to heavy clogging and traffic congestion, especially in Kochi’s Ernakulam district.

Kochi’s western waterways are part of the 205-km West Coast Canal or National Waterway 3 running from Kollam to Kottarpuram. They link not just various parts of the city but also external communities.

Shifting from water-based to land-centric transport has increased congestion on streets on one hand, and unreliability of the ferry service on the other. The city earlier had more than 60 jetties and a large ferry system for passengers and goods from urban areas. Slowly, the road-based transport improved, while building bridges connected the islands to the mainland.

With the shift towards land-based transport systems in 2008, more than 2,200 daily bus departures were recorded from key island locations to the mainland. Today, just 3 per cent of the commuter traffic uses ferries, even though they take less time than road transport. But due to the poor state of the ferry infrastructure, poor frequency and unreliability, it is difficult to rely on ferry transport.

However, even while the ferry system has the potential to reduce the load on road transport for commute, one has to note that there are a number of challenges to the development of waterways in Kochi.

Institutional Limitations

While 80 percent of Kochi lies within five metres of the mean sea level, the changing climate and rising sea levels have created unbalanced administration. While the inland waterways are administered at just 5-10 per cent cost of four-lane highways, the overall maintenance has so far remained at 20 per cent.

Integrating the metro, bus and boat transport modes are under consideration.  The Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) would be taking on coordination and streamlining the metro and the water transport systems.

Network Limitations

The main challenge of the ferry service is lack of permeability, that is linkage through internal canals. Water transport systems in cities like Amsterdam and Venice have taken off successfully through dense network and linkages. But in Kochi, while the western edge gives a good front for water transport, they are not extended to the inland canal system.

The natural inland channels in Ernakulam and Kakkanad are narrow, without navigable depth or formal edge. Due to drastic encroachment, illegal construction and solid waste dumping, these systems are not able to support transportation.

A lot of investment is needed to link the waterways and make them navigable. Much of the water transport network, as well as Kochi Metro, is in the western areas. There are links between the mainland with eastern Goshree, Fort Kochi and Mattancherry of the western region, which are the most densely populated.

Ecological Limitations

While the backwaters play an important role due to their location, high productivity and services, global estuarine ecosystems also undergo severe ecological pressure. In the coming decades, the negative consequences of acidification and warming of coastal waters are expected to be major worries. Rising sea levels, temperatures and changing precipitation patterns have to be factored in in the government’s efforts to improve the city.

Waterways as solutions

There has been significant investment in the recent past in developing Kochi. The metro rail project is expected to ease congestion in the land-based transport, even as there is expectation of improvement in inland connectivity through waterways.

Restoring Kochi’s waterways would ensure that citizens can enjoy affordable and clean transport systems. It would also mean environmental regeneration, a boost to tourism, and improved natural storm protection and flood drainage mechanisms.

The waterways system can also strengthen the social resilience of the city. An efficient and integrated water transport system offers an affordable alternative to communities in western islands, which are some of the most economically vulnerable. They can give them better access to economic opportunities, employment, health and social facilities.

But coastal systems are sensitive to climate drivers and changes in sea levels, ocean temperature, and ocean acidity. Hence, steps need to be taken to integrate and involve stakeholders in relevant decision-making processes. “The ongoing efforts should be part of a broader developmental agenda and the environmental resilience of the city,” says Sandeep Paul. As economics and environment are intertwined, each can complement as well as support, rather than undercut the other, if its channels are strengthened.

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