Nine reasons why Cities must save Urban Wetlands now more than ever!

Urban wetlands are vulnerable, urban ecosystems are degrading and urban air is becoming unbreathable by the hour.

In spite of the above, urban population is increasing at an alarming rate. More than half of humanity lives in cities today and this urban population is projected to increase by another 18% in the next thirty years with three countries -India, China and Nigeria -leading the race§. As a result of urbanization, the demand for new infrastructure in cities is§ leading to the replacement of natural earth with built environments destabilizing the ecosystems and reducing the landscape cover. The 'green/ blue space' that remains is often unequally distributed, with deprived areas less likely to have access§. Consequently, this growing separation from environment also has direct implications on the urban health and well-being.

Even though wetlands are known to be the richest ecosystem on earth, they are disappearing three times faster than forests as per the Global Wetland Outlook released in 2018 by the Ramsar Convention§. India specifically has lost nearly one-third of its wetlands in the last three decades alone, to urban development and agriculture expansion.

Basai Wetlands, Gurugram, India

Most birders, environmentalists or urban enthusiasts based in New Delhi or around must have visited or heard about the 206-hectares of Basai Wetlands. Situated a little towards the periphery of the Gurugram City, this wetland is a paradise for birders since it attracts hundreds of winged visitors during winters§ and is one of the three most important wetlands for migratory birds in the National Capital Region of India.

Basai Wetlands, Gurugram, India, September, 2020. Source: Author.

Ecologically, Gurugram is situated between the Aravalli Hill Range towards the south-east and the Najafgarh drain (originally a fresh water channel) towards the north-west. The city naturally drains from SE towards the NW through the Badshahpur drain, the primary natural water channel flowing through the city and Basai wetlands lies at an important junction where this primary drain finally merges into the Najafgarh Drain channel.

Gurugram Map: Major Ecological Features of the City. Source: Author

Being one of the major satellite cities of New Delhi and an important part of the National Capital Region, Gurugram’s urban growth has been marked by extreme development pressure over the past few decades and has evidently resulted in gradual degradation of the ecosystem. Today, on the city map, the Badshahpur drain is only visible in parts as sections of it are broken, channelized, covered or have just dried up. A study of the historical satellite images also show that Basai wetlands have been visibly displaced over the years with the construction of an expressway forming an embankment for the natural collection of water.

Basai Wetlands, Gurugram: May, 2002 & November, 2020. Source: Author

These wetlands are under further threat with a part of the land along the edges of the wetland getting converted into a Construction & Debris Waste Recycling Plant by the Municipal Corporation, operational since December 2019. Nevertheless, Basai wetlands are alive and still form an important part of the urban ecosystem of the city.

Importance of wetlands, more so for urbanizing cities all across the world

Protecting and restoring Urban Wetlands has multiple benefits and hence must be highly valued by the policy-makers and the city-dwellers:

  1. Benefits health & promotes well-being: Studies have shown that spending time in or near nature helps people live healthier lives since it encourages physical activity and social engagement amongst people. Nature creates biophysical changes to our environment (e.g., temperature regulation), provides settings that require limited concentration and thus also help reduce stress levels. Restoration Theory is an emerging field in neuroscience, which in part proposes that access to nature helps to restore the brain§.

With the COVID pandemic hitting the world in 2020 and social distancing, isolation and work-from-home becoming the new normal, the global population led a more sedentary, isolated and unhealthy lifestyle over the last one year. The new normal also resulted in an increase in the cases of depression, anxiety and obesity amongst people. Due to these after effects of the pandemic and a growing evidence of positive impacts of environment on human health, there has been an increase in prescription of natural treatments in combination with traditional healthcare.

Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Limited, a charitable trust registered in England and Wales, runs various Wetland Centres across the UK and invests heavily in research and conservation of wetlands. Through one of their pilot projects using wearable tech, WWT has been able to establish that urban wetlands can benefit stressed-out city dwellers. WWT is now working with local health care providers in designing ‘Blue Prescriptions’ -a nature-based form of social prescribing which are basically six-week programmes that enable people to connect with nature and wetlands and in the process help people manage low level psychological and physical conditions.

  1. Most effective form of Carbon Sinks: Soils found in wetlands have the ability to store excess carbon for hundreds of years (via photosynthesis) from the atmosphere –one of the primary components of greenhouse gases and a driver of climate change§.

According to the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel, wetlands cover just 9% of the planet’s land surface, yet are estimated to store 35% of terrestrial carbon§. Hence, undoubtedly, wetlands are one of the essential regulators of climate change and global agenda on sustainable development cannot be achieved without them.

  1. Helps control flooding of our cities: Wetlands function as a natural sponge§ capable of holding water that comes from periodic flooding of rivers, canals or storm water run-off from excessive rainfall. So, wetlands can reduce flooding of our cities because they hold the water up for a long time before slowly releasing it into the connected water system.

In the recent past, Gurugram along with other Indian cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi, has faced severe flooding events which has led to the city or parts of the city becoming non-functional for days. Even though urban flood management in India is investing heavily in improving grey stormwater infrastructure, recurring failures clearly indicate that these actions are insufficient. Natural ecosystems such as wetlands are nature-based solutions (blue-green infrastructure) that offer flexible, low-cost solutions for flood mitigation and management§ along with making our cities resilient.

  1. Replenishes Ground Water: By storing water before slowly releasing it, wetlands are able to recharge local groundwater supplies.

Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Gurugram has already been declared to be in the dark zone category since 2011, by the Central Ground Water Authority of India, which means that the water table level has receded below repairable limits and hence, prohibits further ground water extraction. With the city already having a depleting ground water table, preserving the wetland is of utmost importance§.

  1. Water Purification: The plants and soils of wetlands act as a filter for stormwater run-off by trapping nutrient and sediment pollution and thus recharge the ground with or send cleaner water downstream.
  2. Wetlands improve urban air quality: The plants and soils of wetlands capture and store airborne toxins, in turn helping to improve air quality§.

It is important to highlight here that according to a report published in March 2019, compiled and analyzed by IQAir AirVisual, a software company that tracks pollution worldwide, and environmental NGO Greenpeace, Gurugram emerged as the world’s most polluted city with the annual average concentration of PM 2.5 at 135.8 µg/m3. A year later in March 2020, Gurugram was still one of the ten most polluted cities of the world§.

  1. Wetlands help combat urban heat island effect: Through the process of evaporative cooling, wetlands help to reduce extreme air temperatures. The cold-island effect of urban wetlands has received increasing attention in recent years due to its important role in the alleviation of urban heat islands§.
  2. Wetlands promote and provide for Biodiversity: Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs§ as they provide habitats for innumerable species of plants and animals.

Basai Wetlands has been identified as a “Key Biodiversity Area” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as it is known to shelter 20,000 birds of 280 species, 60% of the total bird species seen in the National Capital Region§. Evidently, it is an important biodiversity hotspot in India.

  1. Recreation & Tourism: Between bird watching, biking, hiking, and kayaking, wetlands provide people with various ways to recreate and enjoy nature.

Gurugram is fortunate to already be home to Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary which is a notified wetland and is a great destination for people who love outdoors. As an added benefit to this, Basai Wetlands are more centrally located within the city and conversion of these unregulated wetlands to urban parks where people have better access to the bio-diversity, can become a change-maker in Gurugram’s journey.

The way forward for Gurugram

The current Development Plan of the city published in 2012 does not acknowledge the presence of the 206 hectares of Basai Wetlands and rather the proposed land use in this area is for Public Utilities such as water works and Power Grid Sub-station. So, the city needs to immediately take action and look at its ecosystem more closely. The first step towards saving Basai would be to identify the area as an ecological sensitive zone in the Master Development Plan and notify the wetlands for protection from being treated as wastelands.

Once these wetlands get notified, it is going to be another long journey, hopefully a fruitful one, towards preservation and management of the same.

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