A Social-Ecological Approach to Urban Lake Governance and Sustainability in India

Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri

“Lakes in Indian cities have seen a pitfall in terms of quality. Their diminishing numbers in the last two decades have created an ecological void in cities’ management and sustainable development. The intersection of environment and society at play has also been an important factor in deciding and shaping the country’s urban lake governance scenario,” said Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava.

Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava, an entrepreneur, researcher, and educator and Former Executive Director at SaciWATERs, shares her insights in a webinar organized by the Center for Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal.

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She is concerned about the alarming rate at which the urban lakes are getting shrunk and polluted is degrading the local ecosystem’s balance. This diminishing state of the environment is due to urbanization and population, governance, lack of trust in government functioning and resource management, development, and the misconception that everything is for human appropriation and sustainability.

There lies a gap between the proponents of action and knowing. Thus, a bridge needs to be built among the diverse people working in the water sector. Dr Mansee believes that such transdisciplinarity, where the science gets merged with society, will lead to more plausible solutions, less politicization, and development with a conscience. A simple communicable language to disseminate the complexity will be a necessary tool, wherein a social-ecological system framework can be brought into the picture.  

Governing a lake with a sustainable approach requires physical nature, value, and services, governing actors and mechanisms to be intertwined in a socio-political setting, and related ecosystems or development. She talks about the framework she has been working on, including concepts, theories, models, and methodologies that would work as a manuscript for governing a resource like lake in a socio-ecological manner.

Shedding more light into urban lake settings’ socio-political aspects, Dr Mansee explains that most lakes now are just engineered systems with ecosystem characteristics. These ‘lakes’ have also become a ground for cultural events, thus neglecting the idea of conservation. A lake without water is just a piece of land – such a geopolitical contestation is another important aspect of the story.

She also emphasized that the lakes’ water source and the city is a collective milieu of waterscapes. The development around such waterscapes needs to be monitored. Again, the related developments that influence the lake water other than the physical infrastructure can be the population density and social demography of the surrounding area, the people’s occupation and lifestyle, and the extent of extraction taking place. The class divide of rich and poor and their access to such a lake makes it a fine example of a socio-ecological resource.

Governing the lakes’ physical nature will come about by integrating and managing challenges across scales such as lake system, the system of lakes, drainage courses, etc. She exemplified the cities of Hyderabad, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, and Udaipur for the same. Integration of rainwater, groundwater, and wastewater is also crucial. Further, the governing values will come into play with ecological, social, economic, infrastructure, political, climate regulations, and the practice of equally sustaining them in the long run. The various governing organizations will play in their capacity, be it the users (personal and businesses), the provider at the site, city, state, central level, the regulators, academicians and historians, and most importantly, the community as a whole.

Trying to have a chronological sense of the lakes’ destitute state, she explained that the growing’ development processes’, the British rule, the green revolution, lack of restoration methods all had a part in its degradation. The restoration of these lakes will have to be a cumulative approach.

Another lacuna is the lack of interest shown in research and education. She believes research will push forward the sustainability quotient for the government, civil society, and businesses. She talked about the lack of effective governance mechanisms at the local, regional, and national levels, citing a crucial point where organically developed villages carrying community-led lake management shifted to ‘modern’ land-use plans with the state as a provider. Such a social contract did more harm than good and needs to be rejuvenated into a new socio-ecological contract of governing mechanisms, a poly-centric and should make its way through the planning, designing, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of government’ actions’.

Other recommendations of Dr Mansee involve shifting focus to groundwater and wastewater, which are the real game-changers. A new identity of treating a lake as a heritage should be rather than a recreation source and treating wetlands as urban forests. To include biodiversity components in ‘Detailed Project Reports’ of proposed surrounding infrastructure and quantify nature’s elements – trees, the fish, or the birds. Investing accordingly and putting a price on wetlands services on top of the land price is also a noteworthy addition.

She also highlighted the governance-sustainability dilemma. where keeping people away is not the answer but involving them is, only ‘development’ is not the answer. Still, lake conservation is and, to look for answers of how much and whom to sustain, that is, a measurable thing for urban lakes. Talking about the state of water education, she said that there needs to be a well laid out, comprehensive and interdisciplinary pedagogy for water education.

Finally, Dr Mansee talked about amplifying the scope of capacity building, skill development, data development, community awareness, and engagement of youth and senior citizens on governing users.

She is hopeful because the urban lakes are now slowly under restoration after years of deterioration and because a much-needed water census is being prepared to be out soon. Lastly, she celebrates the idea of policymakers and city planners delving into the subject.

Dr Fawzia Tarannum, Assistant Professor and Programme Coordinator, Coca Cola Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI School of Advanced Studies brought into the table the importance of a gendered perspective of water management and care, the need for social movements and community involvement, the effectiveness of current policies and laws and, fighting the tanker mafias.

Dr Mansee later talked about the role politics and leaders can play to bring about a change. The best way to conserve the wetlands is to not do anything with it and let it naturally rejuvenate, unlike the short-term development and economic agendas the people at power promise to bring about; the idea of community well being and ecology being the long term agendas. The lack of ecological clarity in the budget 2021-22 and the economic policy reports that NITI Aayog comes out with further demerits the issue’s seriousness.

In her ending notes, she emphasized the broader concept of conserving water reflecting on the importance of pricing it, citing the unsustainable use of it by the county’s middle class. The need to manage and have better wastewater treatment facilities also serves its purpose as an example of water regeneration. Finally, groundwater which she believes is the prime component of the water cycle (that includes the process of percolation of water in lake slowly under the ground) is where the focus should be. Putting out the irony for the viewers of demanding pure water yet over extracting groundwater.

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Picture Courtesy: Down To Earth