In the realm of Ecosystem-based Adaptation and Nature-based Solutions (NbS), the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) has been diligently cultivating a wealth of knowledge. This knowledge base is a testament to the institute’s commitment to documenting and disseminating best practices, particularly those that can be applied within urban settings and traditional contexts. In this article, Uday Bhonde, Senior Programme Specialist in Water and Environment at NIUA sheds light on NIUA’s recent initiatives in preserving our natural environments.
Healthy ecosystems, comprising rivers, aquifers, mountains, forests, marshes, lakes, and wetlands, are vital for all life on Earth. They not only provide essential sustenance but also influence climate dynamics and are instrumental in mitigating climate change, increasing our ability to adapt to it. In urban areas, ecosystems are often synonymous with waterbodies and green spaces, collectively referred to as blue-green spaces when encompassing water bodies. They are essential natural resources for the biosphere within the scope of the SDGs (UNEP 2021). As a result, SDG 6.6 emphasizes their protection, which also influences other SDGs.
Healthy ecosystems not only enhance resilience against climate variability but also offer functional services, livelihood opportunities, and economic benefits. Multiple benefits of urban forests, wetlands for wastewater treatment, mangroves, and wetlands improving fish catches, and healthy water bodies boosting the real estate sector are proven examples.
However, rapid global development and increasing space constraints pose a grave threat to these ecosystems. Cities themselves are integral components of larger ecosystems, thus experiencing the consequences of alterations in these broader contexts. Frequent urban flooding and escalating water shortages, observed both globally and in India, are poignant illustrations of the systemic changes resulting from shifting climatic conditions.
Historically, communities relied directly on ecosystems for sustenance, fostering strong bonds and social norms to safeguard them. However, as development and changing lifestyles took hold, this direct dependency waned, necessitating direct and indirect legal protection. Protecting these ecosystems is not just a matter of environmental concern; today it’s a cornerstone of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, UNEP 2021), with SDG 6.6 highlighting their protection as a linchpin affecting multiple other SDGs. India’s own journey towards ecosystem protection dates back nearly a century, with landmark legislations such as the Indian Forest Act of 1927, the Water (Prevention and Control) Act of 1974, and the Environment Protection Act of 1986.
Complexities in protecting ecosystems in Indian cities
Protecting ecosystems in the urban areas of India involves complex challenges, ranging from diverse population densities to complex socioeconomic structures, and the active presence of commercial and industrial entities. Moreover, urban areas are home to numerous institutions responsible for managing a wide array of assets, many of which intersect with vital ecosystems such as urban river stretches, aquifers, wetlands, lakes, and water bodies. Protecting these ecosystems within Indian cities demands a comprehensive approach encompassing political commitment, supportive policies, efficient governance, and inter-ministerial collaboration (Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Jal Shakti, Housing and Urban Affairs).
Additionally, community involvement, as exemplified by successful international models, is a critical factor. NGOs, think tanks, and corporates experienced in rural ecosystem protection can contribute valuable expertise, capacity-building, and the scaling of best practices in urban India. Therefore, adopting the “Document, Educate, and Inspire” approach is a recommended strategy for integrating ecosystem protection into urban areas across India.
Illustrating EbA through restoration of water related ecosystems
Following the same principles, NIUA has been actively developing a knowledge base on Ecosystem-based Adaptation and Nature-based Solutions (NbS) by documenting best practices applicable in urban areas and traditional practices. Building on this, it has recently embarked on two projects to protect our ecosystems.
Within the sphere of climate resilience, enhancing water security is one of the most important tenets to focus on, as water is the primary medium through which climate change manifests globally. Cities across the globe are facing the brunt of these impacts, in both developed and developing countries. In India, on one hand, cities are being brought to a standstill with alarming frequency of flooding events. On the other hand, there are increasing instances of water shortages/scarcity in the summers. According to the recently launched Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability), the magnitude and frequency of these crises will only increase unless remedial action is taken. Enhancing water security is, therefore, central to any climate change adaptation strategy for a city.
Thus, the focus of the Ecosystem-based Adaptation Practices in Indian Cities (EPIC) program, undertaken with support from the Global EbA fund and IUCN, is on evaluating forest, wetlands, natural drains, and marshy ecosystems in the city of Bhubaneswar, India, to address urban flooding and water scarcity. Among water supply sources, the shallow aquifer ecosystem is the most neglected in cities, despite being crucial; they are a lifeline for the urban poor. Therefore, another project by NIUA focuses on implementing recharge strategies to revive the dilapidated shallow aquifer ecosystem in 10 Indian cities spread out in different geo-climatic regions.
As we approach the 2030 evaluation of the SDGs, the stark reality of our freshwater ecosystems cannot be ignored. The latest progress report on freshwater ecosystems across the globe, dated 2021, paints a grim picture with approximately 85 percent of wetlands disappearing over the past three centuries and one-fifth of river basins experiencing abnormal changes in freshwater availability worldwide. While the Indian government has recognised the benefits of safeguarding ecosystems and launched national plans and missions, the protection of ecosystems in Indian cities remains a pressing issue that demands immediate attention. To accelerate progress, we must adopt a multifaceted approach that includes ecosystem- sensitive urban planning, innovative nature-based solutions complementing infrastructure projects, creative financing mechanisms, and robust indicator-based monitoring systems. The time to act is now, as our future and the health of our ecosystems are uncertain.