Room in our hearts, for the river in our city

Humans may have evolved from fish in water, but evolution might not be a linear process after all. In a curiously long-term cyclicity of Nature, extreme weather events are perhaps reminding us that it may be time to go home, which is back in the waters again.

Centimetres of rainfall in a matter of hours are raising the flood-lines across the world by meters. North America, the Caribbean, Europe, India, Peru and even Australia, have all experienced unusual flooding in the recent past. At the time of writing this, large parts of riverine India are barely beginning to look up from the August floods and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is drowned in waist-deep water due to sudden strong cyclonic rain. Water has no form, colour or taste and also behaves against some of the common rules of physics. A short video on BBC Ideas graphically describes how each molecule of water has traversed an incredible voyage across time and space. While science cannot claim to not understand its behaviour, some of us have figured out better technologies of handling torrents of water than the rest.

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Image: dutchwatersector.com

Ruimte Voor de Rivier, or simply, Room for the River

They say, if you live in water, make friends with… the Dutch! Over 27% of the Netherlands is below sea level. The country has battled through time for survival against the tide. Centuries ago, they built dykes and polders and groynes to fortify against ingress of water into inhabited delta land. Through a recently completed six-year integrated program called Room For Rivers, the Netherlands has built, or rebuilt, a new landscape in 30 locations across their small country. A country that earlier built dykes (walls built to prevent flooding) and polders (reclaimed land behind dykes), and groynes (a low sturdy wall or barrier built in the sea), has responded smartly to the warnings of climate change. This time, it is not by building walls, but by removing them. Hydrologists, geologists, ecologists, residents and the government converged and agreed to give the river more room, in order to be able to manage higher water levels. Their website, as well as countless others, including those promoting Holland tourism, describe a nine-technique approach. Room For Rivers is a delta water management solution and municipalities across the world, sitting on delta regions are particularly attracted to the concept. This approach applies equally well to other regions facing the challenge of managing to flood.

 

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A thoughtful reworking of the river will mean letting the river be; the biggest challenge, then, is of human settlements along the river banks. Room For Rivers project is doubtlessly an engineering marvel, but its value lies in doing good to the river-ecology and the residents together. Holland may have a much smaller population but obviously enough, the density near the rivers is the key factor. The promoters of this project began with the people and ecology concerns before approaching the actual work on the ground. Prevention and integrated approach, have been their keywords. They have effectively achieved their goal and now, market their experience and expertise to those in need.

Does Room For Rivers Apply To India?

After the 2018 floods, the Kerala CM visited the Netherlands exploring how the model could be brought over to Kuttanad. This region covers the Alappuzha and Kottayam Districts and is sometimes referred to as Holland of the East, as it partly lies beneath the sea-level. Parineeta Dandekar, the noted river expert and activist recently wrote about her experience at Nijmegen in Holland thus: “little can be achieved by fighting against water, it is important to plan in sync with Nature, instead.” Evidently, there is room for replicating the project in numerous domestic geographies. When trying to implement a similar project in Maharashtra or Kerala, for example, local conditions will have to be factored in. The vision for a healthy and thriving city must primarily account for the retention of existing ecological features. Riparian zones are the natural transition zones, the must-have flanks of any healthy and living river. Natural flood plains and riparian marshes are integral to every river-system. Howsoever complex, the topography of the river basin needs to be restored to achieve any real positive outcome. Furthermore, the extrapolation of data derived from the current flooding is warranted. Frequent recurrence of sudden high-rainfall will have to be considered.

Climate change is proving to be the new determinant of spatial planning. Cities like Houston are using the flood-line data from the 2018 Harvey cyclonic floods in strategically planning for the once-in-500-year events. It is imperative that every city factors-in the likely effects of extreme weather.

Interestingly, there are varying numbers of persons living per square kilometre in cities situated on rivers. The number for Rotterdam is about 3000/sq km, while Kolhapur has 4400/sq km, Sangli has 5600/sq km and Pune has 9400/sq km population density. Exact data of the number of residents living on river banks needs to be figured in when considering actual relocation of residents and real estate. In their quest for urbanisation, many European and American cities have indulged in excessive pavements. Their problems and those on the urban Indian landscape are not much different, except that the regions still developing, have ready lessons in what must be avoided.

While floods in many cities are yet to recede fully, much is being heard about the red-line and the blue-line. These lines denote the flood-levels reached once in 25 years and 100 years respectively. The coloured lines on the map are meant to define the room that must be allowed for the river, or the hill, and its immediate ecology. In reality, however, the blue and red lines mark the conflict lines between Nature and humans, as well as across different sections of the same city. In Pune, the lines are allegedly tampered with during digitisation of maps in order to favour certain developers. Then there are instances of elected legislators arguing successfully (?) in the Assembly to allow construction in critical areas.

The populism of such kind comes from the pressure of growing population and is fuelled by the construction contractors that befriend the politicians. Invasion of river banks by construction projects, or their resulting debris, has destroyed riparian zones and flood-plains flanking urban river flows in recent years. While excessive rainfall is pouring unexpected amounts of water down, the pavements are causing increased run-offs. If sea-water entering inhabited land areas is a phenomenon of the delta regions, the inland cities like Pune, Sangli and Kolhapur, on the leeward slopes of Sahyadri, are exposed to the discharge from the many dams upstream. Poor dam-water release-protocols have meant forced the unplanned discharge of water at the times of extreme rainfall. Where dams were built for protection against excess water, they often serve as threats to the population downstream.

The broad scenario is one of chaos, and to make matters worse, the average urban citizen is more concerned about traffic problems, because it affects them twice every day. The floods can occur once in a few years, or at the worst, once every year. As such, the memory of a flood can decay quickly off the public mind. The Dutch did not commission their project through one single agency or authority. They had a host of town councils, universities and consulting agencies collaborate positively. The local people were consulted and counselled before all else. In places, there was a push-back of no less than 350 meters, but that was achieved through community dialogue. Tens of houses, dozens of businesses and scores of citizens had to be relocated; but that was materialised because everyone realised that it was the most future-proof choice.

Much of the dialogue in the denser Indian cities can happen at a time when the flood-lines are still wet. Just when the relief agencies are still serving the flood-hit towns and cities, the affected people are most likely to accede to proposals of mitigating future floods. Whether it is to adopt the Dutch model or the Sponge City concept or go for a locally evolved innovation, smart administration could rise above political divisions and use the time to swing into action. They could empanel potamologists, hydrologists, geologists and social scientists along with policy-makers to evolve strategies to outlive the horrors of future floods staring at us.

Schematic diagram of the Sponge city concept. Source: Shuyang Xu. 

The Sponge City Concept [Image: researchgate.net]

The political parties will have to think beyond the elections and their finite five-year terms. Genuine long-term projects will have to be sold to the voters, where much of the work on the minds will precede actual work on the ground. The people, on their part, will have to hold a room in their hearts, to come forward, and actually agree to go backwards, extending the room for their rivers. That will be the true reflection of the society that we are.

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