Creaking cities, vanishing ecosystems

Ecosystems and their role in climate change resilience
Ecosystems and their role in climate change resilience

Ecosystems are complex functioning units that include living as well as non living entities and build on interdependent relationships among these living resources, surrounding habitats and residents of an area. Thus, they can include plants, trees, animals, fish, birds, microorganisms, water bodies, soil and people. Ecosystems can vary by size and components, but they are live and functioning units of nature. If one part of the ecosystem is damaged, it has an impact on all its other components.

Ecosystems provide a number of benefits known as ecosystem services to communities that reside in the area. These include provisioning services like food and water, regulating services such as flood and disease control, cultural services such as spiritual, recreational and cultural benefits, and supporting services such as nutrient cycling.

Urbanisation and the threats to ecosystems

In recent years, the gradual process of urbanisation and changes in land use patterns have invaded green belts, lakes, ponds and other water bodies as well as open spaces, forests, vegetation, fields and flood plains at the peri urban interface, each of which form an ecosystem of their own and maintain the balance of nature. As rural areas are gradually converting to urban, these not only pose a threat to these ecosystems but also affect the livelihoods of people who draw on these ecosystem services, and increase the risks posed by climate change due to disturbances in the ecological balance. It is thus important to understand the roles and services provided by these spaces and their ecosystems and their contribution to building urban resilience to climate change.

The working paper titled 'Wheezing ecosystems, livelihood services and climate change resilience in Uttar Pradesh' published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, presents the findings of a study that examines the linkages between ecosystem services, urbanisation and resilience to climate change, using the case of Gorakhpur city in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It explores:

  • the changes occuring in ecosystems in the city and their impacts on vulnerable communities;
  • the potential for developing climate resilience through ecosystem services;
  • government programmes and schemes that will improve or maintain ecosystem services; and
  • policy changes needed to preserve ecosystems and their role in supporting climate resilience.

Findings of the study

The changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change coupled with the current city development inititaives and their negative impact on existing ecosystems, have found to lower the resilience and sustainability of the city and its people to climate change in a number of ways.

  • Increase in flooding and water logging in the city

The paper informs that historically Gorakhpur experienced low levels of flooding each year during the summer monsoon and these floods helped to replenish soil fertility, which is an example of an ecosystem service. However, the intensity and duration of floods in the city has been increasing as the city has expanded to encompass sections of both the Rapti and Rohini rivers. Some factors that have exacerbated flooding and waterlogging include:

    • loss of water bodies and permeable areas that absorbed monsoon rains,
    • construction activities in the floodplain zones of the Rapti and Rohini rivers,
    • inability of the city to provide services that reduce flooding, such as solid waste management and wastewater/storm water networks,
    • inappropriately placed embankments that trap flood water for 2-3 months, causing waterlogging, and
    • informal and irregularly maintained canals, check dams and barrage systems upstream of and within urban areas.
  • Effects on livelihoods of traditional communities

In northern, western and southern Gorakhpur, water bodies such as lakes, ponds and other depressions locally called tals were an integral part of the inland drainage system of the area. These collected excess water, acted as detention basins for flood waters during the monsoon and also provided a source of livelihood for the fisherfolk. The depletion of these water bodies has affected the livelihoods of fisherfolk and very few now depend on the lakes for their livelihoods, while the rest have been forced to leave their traditional occupation and work as casual wage labours.

  • Destruction of flora and fauna of the city

Shrinking water bodies and pollution has severely affected the flora and fauna of the city and its peri-urban zones. The deterioration of the waters and the absence of food have also affected the bird population. Previously abundant birds like the Sarus crane, several species of storks and egrets, wild ducks and pheasants are rarely seen.

  • Destruction of agricultural land and natural resources

Changing land-use patterns have been found to lead to drastic changes in the landscape of the city. A land market has emerged with the expansion of the city and agricultural land is being lost to housing. Destruction of agricultural land and natural resources have increased the vulnerability of the people and the city. The food production systems of small-scale and marginal farmers, as well as livestock rearing, horticulture and aquaculture, have been affected. Changes in land and water-use patterns have also affected soil formation thus affecting productivity in the region. Decrease in agricultural productivity and profits from agriculture are forcing people to leave farming in search of alternative means of livelihoods. These changes have also had an impact on the social and cultural fabric of the society.

  • Reduction in forest cover and forest services

Deforestation has led to tremendous soil losses and increased flood events. The poor are thus becoming more dependent on non-cultivated foods and domestic animal stocks are declining.

  • Water and soil contamination

Water pollution and soil contamination are increasing as Gorakhpur’s solid waste and sewage is being dumped in the peri-urban areas while infrastructure measures to reduce urban flooding are creating waterlogging.

The way forward

The paper argues that major efforts need to be made by policy makers, administrators and residents to tackle the crisis. These efforts however need to recognise that an ecosystems approach based on an understanding of the importance and contribution of ecosystem services is needed if both urban and peri-urban areas are to be developed sustainably and inclusively. This calls for the protection of urban and peri-urban agriculture and the recognition that peri-urban areas are not ‘waiting rooms’ for entry to urban areas. Rather, they need to be understood as separate entities that also need to be developed sustainably and equitably. The paper ends by arguing that at the core of redefining ‘peri-urban’ in the context of Gorakhpur should be a multipronged ecosystem -based strategy that includes:

  • enforcing legislation to prevent the conversion of agricultural land and exploitation of water bodies;
  • the need to recognise peri-urban agriculture as a distinct category with support in the form of extension services, marketing facilities and institutional credit;
  • increasing ecosystem support, such as enhancing soil nutrition and protecting water quality;
  • providing better transportation;
  • implementing new waste management policies and rules;
  • recognising and supporting the role of women in peri-urban agriculture;
  • improving education, healthcare and access to existing facilities;
  • better environmental management for dealing with chronic malnutrition and disease; and
  • ensuring community involvement in implementing such measures through formation of people’s institutions.

Implementing such measures however, requires good governance coupled with planning ‘from below’, while the financial requirements for this need to be met mainly through state funding.