Unplanned growth, flawed notification endanger Delhi wetlands

Increased public involvement and lessons from successful restoration attempts can help revive the crucial wetlands under threat in the city.

Have you been to the Surajpur wetland, near Surajpur village in Gautam Budh Nagar district? Located in the midst of an expansive industrial city under the administrative purview of the Greater Noida Development Authority, it reveals itself as a mosaic of a sprawling lake, towering trees and thousands of birds, many flying in from distant lands. As you enter the wetland, the guards tell you not to go beyond the second viewpoint. It is untamed territory, the domain of many wild animals, they warn. 

However, all has not been well in this sanctuary of nature. In January 2024, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Department (UPPCB) collected samples of untreated waste from an industrial unit adjacent to the Surajpur wetland, after several environmentalists alleged that hundreds of trees in a 20-acre area of the wetland had been destroyed due to effluent discharge. 

This was not the first time. Samples had been collected a year ago and tests had indicated the presence of high levels of heavy metals in untreated effluents. Much of this was being discharged in a drain connected to the wetland. This, environmentalists say, has caused significant loss of biodiversity in this prominent birding hotspot. 

“In the month of January, it came to our notice that a number of trees were destroyed in the Surajpur Wetland. There are factories and a residential area called Surajpur nearby from where effluents flow into the wetland, leading to waterlogging. Additionally, an attached drain has overflowed, causing extensive damage to a number of trees,” says Vikrant Tongad, an environment conservationist who has extensively worked for the protection of Surajpur Wetland.

Read more: Novel ecosystems: How our cities are changing nature

A study sharing satellite images has revealed a considerable reduction in the wetland area over the past 13 years. The deterioration has largely been a consequence of escalating urbanisation and construction of towering modern buildings in Greater Noida, wherein wetlands are increasingly being encroached.

What we stand to lose when we lose our wetlands

A wetland is land area that is saturated with water, either throughout the year or at different intervals of time during the year. They are typically shallow, thus, allowing the sunlight to penetrate into the surface facilitating plant growth through photosynthesis, making them one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on the planet. Wetlands occupy around 6% of the Earth’s surface in total. However, despite their small footprint, they are critical freshwater habitats. 

Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, River, and People (SANDRP) says, “Wetlands perform a number of functions. For instance, they facilitate groundwater recharge, function as biodiversity hotspots, and provide livelihoods, reduce the flooding in the city, and change the microclimate around it. From a climate change point of view, they act as carbon sinks. They are extremely important for the ecology of the city.” 

Historically, however, wetlands were considered to have little to no value, and were largely deemed as wasteland. As a result, they were either drained or transformed into the so-called more productive land.

The perils of Delhi’s wetlands

Surajpur is a manifestation of a much larger problem. According to Vikrant Tongad, there are rarely any remaining wetlands in Delhi. There is a common belief among people that wetlands are merely marshlands with limited utility, so that they are often dismissed due to concerns such as mosquito breeding. As Vikrant points out, current rules for the conservation and management of wetlands in India were notified only in 2017, replacing the earlier 2010 guidelines.

Environmentalists working at the Surajpur wetland in New Delhi
Environmental activists (Vikrant Tongad) working at the Surjapur wetland. Pic courtesy: Vikrant Tongad

“Delhi is under immense population pressure. The city demands systematic management, including protection of areas surrounding wetlands from the encroachment of highways, construction, and buildings,” he says, “Surajpur, for instance, is an important biodiversity habitat. While people go to these places to see birds, have picnics, and spend time there, very few of them are actually willing to work for its protection. Out of the funds authorities invested, some were used, and the rest misused.”

Tongad is currently in a legal tussle to ensure that those responsible for discharging treated or untreated effluents into the wetland are held accountable. He has filed a case in the Supreme Court against the National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s decision to exclude the six low-lying areas near the Surajpur wetland from being categorised as wetlands. The NGT had ruled that in the absence of any revenue record, it cannot recognise these areas as wetlands. 

However, according to the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, all wetlands — regardless of their characteristics such as location, size, ownership, biodiversity or ecosystem services values — are eligible for notification and by extension, protection under the Rules. There are only a few exceptions to this, such as river channels, paddy fields, and human-made water bodies specifically constructed for drinking water, aquaculture, salt production, recreation, and irrigation purposes. 

Over the past century, India has lost 50% of its total wetlands. According to the Wetland Authority of Delhi (WAD),  the national capital is reported to have over 1000 wetlands and waterbodies. However, none of them are officially notified, leaving them critically exposed to exploitation. 

According to data accessed by the Hindu, the Wetland Authority of Delhi has even received requests from some of the 16 agencies that own water bodies in the city (see table below), seeking the deletion of around 22.2% of the total water bodies in its records, citing encroachment or drying up as a reason.

Water body owning agenciesReconciled number of water bodies
(As of September 2021)
North MCD 5
Delhi Arch Dept1
Delhi WAKF Board1
IIT Delhi1

Source: Urban Waterbodies Management in Delhi / K S Jayachandran, Wetland Authority of Delhi

“Delhi has expanded exhaustively over the years, while the NCR area is developing at a really fast pace. There is nothing much for Delhi to lose anymore, because it has already lost most of its water resources over the past years. It has been mostly due to urbanisation, new construction, increasing population, and infrastructure,” repeats Pranab J. Patar, a Delhi-based environmentalist.

Gaps in notification process

Pranab also adds that a number of water bodies are left out of the notification process because of a policy lacuna and the unscientific nature of its process. Consequently, it is easy for encroachers to occupy that space or use that for waste dumping. 

Both the state and central government authorities contribute to the notification process. Wetlands are notified under the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. However, the notification process can extend over months or years, depending on the complexities involved and the efficiency of the relevant government departments. Besides, communities and stakeholders may also resist notification, fearing restrictions on activities like farming and construction.

“For example, Bhalswa lake was a unique oxbow lake, which is not the case anymore because one of its arms has been turned into a dumpsite. This is again because notifications were happening during the dry season. The water level was low and depleted, leaving much of the catchment area dry. The authorities considered it to be a dry and barren land and left it out of the notification,” says Pranab, illustrating how legitimate wetlands get left out of the ambit of protection. 

According to India Water Portal, all wetlands of Delhi are vulnerable to aggressive infrastructural change and expansion of built-up areas. The study by the portal recommended an alternative, ecosystem based approach for city planning. An approach that would focus on sustainable development and include planning for the conservation and management of urban water bodies. 

It also emphasises the importance of geospatial analysis to understand and evaluate the situation of wetlands, and accordingly devise appropriate solutions.

The aftermath of neglecting wetlands

In July last year, a large part of Delhi was swamped in floodwaters from the river Yamuna, as its water level rose to a 45-year high mark. Visuals of the flooded capital took the internet by storm, where several claimed that the river Yamuna was reclaiming its historical course. The floods reportedly caused an economic loss of over Rs 10,000 crores.

However, The State of India’s Environment 2023 report from the Centre for Science and Environment released earlier that year had spotted the danger signs already. It highlighted that the Yamuna floodplain originally had over 600 wetlands and water bodies, but more than 60% of them now lacked water. Embankments had disconnected river-fed water bodies from the Yamuna, raising the risk of flooding.  

Encroachment was rampant too. Notably, the Akshardham temple, constructed in 2000, and the Commonwealth Games Village in 2010, were built on the floodplains. Many people residing on the floodplains had converted the area into agricultural fields for their livelihoods. 

“There needs to be much stronger governance of wetlands. Even the judicial bodies are not very stringent. Urbanisation cannot be sustained without the wetlands. Wetland areas should be demarcated using satellite or physical mapping. Stronger rules and regulations should be brought to protect them. Continuous monitoring and local governance is crucial, and the help of the general population is key,” says Himanshu Thakkar. 

In an order dated June 2022, the Wetland Authority of Delhi issued detailed directions to all government authorities on how to expedite protection and restoration of water bodies in Delhi in a time-bound manner. This not only placed strict prohibitory orders on activities detrimental to the health of water bodies, but also emphasised proper identification.

“Identify all water bodies, ensure listing and preparation of brief documents of all water bodies in the concerned jurisdiction as per the definition of Wetlands in Wetland Rules, 2017 with the Master list of the Wetland Authority of Delhi, so that none of the water bodies in Delhi is left unlisted, unmapped and documented under the statutory framework,” says the order.

What can you do for the wetlands in your city?

According to Himanshu, it is crucial for people to familiarise themselves with nearby wetlands. This involves preventing garbage dumping, sewage discharge, and encroachment, while also minimising personal waste generation through segregation and recycling. 

Read more: How citizen action saved Lotus Lake in Navi Mumbai

The complete list of water bodies in and around Delhi and the local jurisdiction of each can be viewed here:

East | North East | North | North West | South | South East | South West | West | New Delhi | Central

The geographical locations may be viewed from the map here.

Wherever residents spot any form of wilful or unintended degradation of a wetland, they can inform the Grievance Committee of the Wetland Authority of Delhi, constituted under the Wetlands Rules, 2017.

Individuals seeking to register grievances are encouraged to correspond via mail with the District Magistrate (DM) of the respective district within Delhi. Additionally, it is advisable to include the Wetland Authority of Delhi in the correspondence. The relevant email IDs for the Wetland Authority are as follows: ceodpgsenv.delhi@nic.in. It is essential to copy this authority to ensure comprehensive communication.

Further, according to the Wetland Authority, a committee comprising District Magistrates from all districts of Delhi, representatives from the Delhi Jal Board, the Irrigation and Flood Control Area, and the relevant agency overseeing the pertinent water body will convene quarterly. This committee convenes to fulfil its designated functions effectively.

The saving of a Delhi wetland: The case of Neela Hauz lake

Fortunately, for Delhi, there is a heartening example of how a degraded water body can be restored. A lake spread over 10 acres in Neela Hauz Biodiversity Park had been neglected and polluted over a long time. Around four years ago, the Delhi Development Authority gave Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), Delhi University, the responsibility to restore the lake. CR Babu, professor emeritus, CEMDE, was given the responsibility for the job. 

View of the Neela Hauz Lake and Sanjay Van forest area
Neela Hauz lake is a freshwater body located in the Aravalli range, next to Sanjay Van in New Delhi. Pic: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

The lake, which is situated in the south central ridge, was once the largest freshwater body in all of south Delhi, with its water being utilised for drinking. However, relentless urbanisation gradually transformed it into a dump site. 

When Delhi hosted the 19th Commonwealth Games in 2010, an over bridge was constructed on the Aruna Asif Ali Marg over the lake and a large amount of debris found its way into the lake. 

According to Prof. C.R. Babu, “Neela Hauz lake is a freshwater body located in the Aravalli range, next to Sanjay Van in New Delhi. This natural depression receives freshwater from all the surrounding hills. There was a time when it used to supply water to entire South Delhi, but due to unplanned , large-scale development, the size of the water body went down from 10 acres to some 3.5 acres.” 

“As a result of indiscriminate construction of roads, such as the Aruna Asaf Ali road, the entire lake was filled with waste, except for a small depression, leading to the freshwater lake to be partially dead,” he further added. At the end, all that was left was a pond, which was also polluted by the sewage discharge through a drain opening into the lake. 

Following a case filed in the Delhi  High Court against the Public Works Department, an order came for the restoration of the lake. 

Neela Hauz lake was restored by the implementation of a unique, integrated Constructed Wetland System (CWS).  A CWS is essentially an engineered or an artificial wetland system designed to treat the contaminants in wastewater. Professor Babu and his team dedicated nearly two years to developing and executing this process. 

The restoration involved a two-step approach: first, the contaminated lake water, resembling raw sewage at that time, was held in a large pond for a day to facilitate oxidation and aerobic degradation. The water was then channelised into tanks filled with pebbles to filter out organic particles. 

Subsequently, the water was moved to the main wetland, transferred into furrows and ridges where 20 varieties of aquatic plants such as Typha, Pharagmites, Alternanthera, Ipomoea, Solanum, etc. were employed to purify the toxins. 

Interestingly, after the successful restoration, avian life began returning to the lake. They team planted around 15000 plants of different native species, making it rich in biodiversity. 

“The lake was completely silted and there was no water source. We desilted it, up to a depth of 3 to 5 metres, from the shore line to the centre of the water body. The materials left after the desilting procedure was a sediment rich in minerals. We used that to make an embankment around it,” said the professor. 

Revival aside, Patar emphasises that if wetlands are to be conserved, sustainability considerations must be at the core of all future infrastructure planning. Engaging in unmindful developmental activities results in the deterioration of the water ecosystem, which serves as a vital carbon sink. Comprehensive conservation initiatives are critical, considering the state of India’s national capital today.

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This in-depth long form piece was produced as part of her work under the Fellowship.

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