Protecting, restoring and conserving the wetlands for enhancing urban resilience
Over the past few years, news items have been added on the list of things severely degrading the condition of Dhaka city’s natural landscape. The megacity housing almost 20 million people is enduring high population growth and rapid unplanned urbanization. We are putting a lot of stress on our water resources (lakes, rivers, canals, wetlands, floodplains) by trying to meet the increasing demand for a larger group of population, discharging untreated waste from industries and municipal sewage, disposing solid wastes, unplanned development and encroachment, and pollution.
Dhaka -- established on the bank of Buriganga River about 400 years ago, encircled by the four rivers Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Tongi Khal -- city had the potential to grow like Venice, having networks of over 65 lakes and canals crisscrossing the metropolis. But we have destroyed the natural drainage system by heading towards a wrong development pathway. Hence, the question is, can we imagine a new Dhaka, which develops in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner?
Lots of policies and planning with little implementation
The Bangladesh government is recognizing the importance of restoration and sustainable management of water-bodies. The Dhaka Structure Plan (2016 – 2035) suggests that the city would need to conserve its water retention area, canals and rivers and flood flow zones. Some other notable policy measures by government include declaring the four surrounded rivers (Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakhya) of Dhaka city as Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) in 2009 to halt the rivers’ degrading water quality, forming National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) in 2013 to recover the water-bodies from illegal encroachment, prioritizing the revitalization of waterbodies in the Seventh Five Year Plan.
The Eighth Five Year Plan is also aiming to ensure balance between the country’s economic development and natural resource conservation, and hence considering to include components like recharging groundwater tables and restoring the water-bodies. The Investment Plan of the visionary Bangladesh Delta Plan (BDP100) also proposes substantial investment up to 2030 on rivers around Dhaka city along with other natural resources. Recently, we are also hoping that the upcoming Detailed Area Plan (DAP) 2016-35 will transform Dhaka into a liveable city as it aims for building a resilient city along with recovering the degraded ecosystem and conserving them.
Despite all these policy measures and efforts from the government, we have not been able to restore the water-bodies and protect our ponds, canals, rivers and flood flow zones. But why? Because in all these years, we have only been thinking about development first, growing our economy and business, at the cost of destroying our nature. It is, however, possible to find solutions in nature itself.
Embracing Nature-based Solutions (NbS) through protecting urban water-bodies
In recent years, we have been talking about an umbrella concept called Nature-based Solutions (NbS) which covers a wide range of ecosystem-based approaches and people-centric activities, and addresses different societal challenges and providing biodiversity benefits. In most cases, these solutions are cost-effective and easier to maintain than conventional infrastructure. Now, let us see how adopting NbS can help in enhancing urban resilience, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation:
As we all know, Dhaka is now rapidly expanding eastward in an unplanned manner, but the eastern part of the city still has wetlands and croplands. However, development of structures can be observed in the floodplain zone in the name of protecting people from flood or increasing agricultural production, which is impacting the fishermen or farmers living adjacent to the floodplains.This type of haphazard development is also impacting the fish biodiversity on the floodplain ecosystem as these areas act as the breeding and nutrition ground for the fisheries, making the fishing communities vulnerable with the loss of fish production. Thus, we can observe a shift in these communities from their traditional occupation to other economic activities.
However, protecting those wetlands will help us not only environmentally, but also economically, by protecting us from urban climate risks, like flooding during heavy rainfall. Let us see how. By adopting NbS through conserving the remaining wetlands, flood flow zones along with floodplains; reclaiming the already grabbed canals and water-bodies; restoring degraded wetlands creating water retention ponds will enhance the ecosystem and enrich biodiversity in these areas. Also, all these peri-urban areas are home to many fishermen and farmers, who are basically dependent on the nature-based livelihood options in these floodplains and wetlands. They have their own indigenous practices to build their houses in the floodplain lands and practice traditional agriculture and fishing. By protecting and conserving these wetlands, it will help secure their rights over these areas, and prevent eviction from their homes and occupation, which also allows them to have socio-economic rights and freedom. In addition to all these benefits towards biodiversity and local people, protection of these wetlands and floodplains will help dealing with urban flooding and waterlogging. Thus, we can think about development in a nature-friendly way, which should not encourage destroying the natural wetlands and floodplains.
Missing puzzles in urban policy and planning documents
The DAP is considering the revival and restoration of the wetlands in their first draft through identifying the water-bodies, and demarcating rivers, canals, water bodies, water retention and catchment areas according to the mouza map. It also proposes an approach called “Urban Lifeline” which would design 566 kilometres of water-bodies and canals to enhance communication instead of only having them as drainage channels which will regulate the microclimate, connect human and nature, and enrich biodiversity. However, there has been some criticism going on around the upcoming DAP, because of delays in the the process of finalizing the plan, proposing modification to flood flow zones, not considering the “blue network” proposed in the Dhaka Structure Plan, not giving enough importance to conserve water-bodies, or not considering housing options for poor and low-income local communities, and so on. And this is the case for many urban development related policies and planning documents, with a crying need to have critical evaluation of these documents by all stakeholders.
Acknowledging and implementing NbS to envision a new Dhaka
A detailed analysis and evaluation in policy design, guideline and monitoring would help bridge the gaps, apply best local practices and promote NbS for protection, conservation and restoration of water-bodies, and nature-friendly development of Dhaka city. Therefore, what must be developed is a robust and evidence-based framework for the economic, social and environmental benefits of NbS, which can be used by local, regional and national level policymakers to enhance urban climate resilience for promoting inclusive urban regeneration. Our plans need to be adaptive, with the changing climate and changing ecosystems, to enhance the urban ecosystem services. Now is the time to acknowledge NbS as one of the most prudent responses to the numerous challenges posed by climate change. For the realization of liveable cities, we need to bring change in the mindset of policymakers, decision-making bodies, planners, engineers, architects, on the ground implementers, businessmen, economists and citizens.
Through protecting or restoring water-bodies, and or blending green-grey infrastructures for water-resource management, many countries have set examples on how to utilise NbS for an environment friendly development as well as natural resource management. China’s ‘Sponge cities’ utilise a number of green-solutions approaches with pervious pavements and wetlands restoration through recycling rainwater to improve the water availability in urban neighbourhoods, while protecting three watersheds in New York City since 1990 has been providing the largest unfiltered water supply in New York City since 1990, saving up to more than$300 million. Therefore, can we reimagine the future of Dhaka City by adopting NbS to protect, restore and conserve our urban wetlands to enhance our cities resilience for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation? The answer should be a resounding ‘yes.’
Tasfia Tasnim is a Senior Research Associate at ICCCAD, working on nature-based solutions, livelihood resilience and climate finance.
Dr Saleemul Huq is the Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).