Updated: Sep 20, 2021
Our cities, our rivers
Cities around the world are realizing that water can be a cultural and recreational asset, not something to hide or pillage, and it seems no waterway will be wasted for long. Right from ancient civilizations, rivers have been the lifeline of our cities and towns. Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, Egypt, and China had thrived alongside fertile riverbanks of Indus, Nile and yellow river respectively. The Whangunai river in New Zealand was declared as a living entity by the Parliament giving the river equal human rights. Located on the country’s North island, the Whanganui River in New Zealand which is closely tied to the culture and ancestry of New Zealand’s Maori tribes, particularly the Whanganui iwi community, which spearheaded the campaign for personhood.
All of the current major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) hold an important role for water at the center of their religious beliefs. This can be seen in methods of purification that involve immersion in water, such as baptism and washing rituals. Water as a purifier and giver of life seems to have lent it a hugely spiritual significance to early civilizations just as it does today. Cities like Allahabad and Haridwar are built on the bank of river Ganga. However, the connection between the citizens and the cities has been lost. There is a lot of discussion about how cities as operational units reconnect with their rivers. For this matter, many federal governments across the world are reshaping the river and restoring ecosystems. The Chicago River was once so full of sewage that in the late 19th century Illinois built a series of canals to actually reverse its flow away from Lake Michigan, to prevent it from contaminating the city’s water supply. More than 100 years later the city launched the Chicago River Corridor Development Plan, a measure laying out new trails, parks, boathouses, overlooks, and the just-opened Chicago River walk, a pedestrian promenade along six blocks between State Street and Lake Street.
Image 1: The rejuvenated Chicago river which was once dirt | Source: Kate Joyce (featured in Wired)
New York’s once ridiculously-polluted East River and Hudson waterfronts were long considered great places to dump bodies. After transforming the banks on all sides over the last two decades with riverfront parks and paths, the city is further reimagining them through several new initiatives, including BIG’s Big U, a 10-mile-long protective system of landscaping and barriers around Manhattan that double as public space.
Almost 68% of sewerage gets dumped in the river in India. River cleaning drives across the world have shown that economic returns justify improving the living conditions of the slums that exist on its banks. The Yamuna river that had begun to heal as fewer pollutants were being let out in the river amid the lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic. The nationwide lockdown imposed due to COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the shutting down of industries, thereby creating space for rivers to rejuvenate. Reclaiming the lost rivers could initiate a new imagination of Indian cities and begin a process of conserving its bio-diversity, despite the complexities and huge challenges in what may be, otherwise, seen as a simple task. Such initiatives, however, remain a collaborative process between citizens and the authorities. If you leave the rivers on themselves and are given enough time to rejuvenate, they can do that automatically. Sustaining a balance between development and conservational activities and respecting a river’s threshold becomes a necessity.
Image 2: River Yamuna rejuvenated on its own in 2020 due to corona lockdown. Polluted water gives way to pure looking blue water| Source: Extracted from planetcustodian.com
Why re-imagine the river?
Our river is often looked as a uni-dimensional endeavor- to keep the river clean. It becomes important to understand that a river cannot be managed in isolation. It is a system- a system that encompasses diverse elements from the river itself, to its surrounding ecosystem and related services, and the livelihoods, cultural, spiritual and recreational activities it supports. When the upstream and downstream connotations are added to this, the understanding of river systems becomes more holistic and robust. Once city officials develop this understanding, it becomes clear that managing an urban river is not only about cleaning up the pollution. River management comprises several components and elements. It supports the ecosystem and vast number of livelihoods. Riverfront development connect the cities and the rivers. With the Sabarmati riverfront development project in Ahmedabad, the citizens reconnected back to the river.
Image 3: Challenges of river management | Source: Mr. Victor Shinde’s presentation on ‘Reimagining the river’
Overview of the Urban River Management Plan (URMP) Framework:
The river Ganga is recognized as the largest basin in the world. The government of India came up with the Namami Gange Urban River Management Plan programme to have a sustainable model to clean river Ganga. The cleaning is metamorphised into a holistic approach. Re-imagining has led to the development of the Urban River Management Plan (URMP) framework. Under this programme, cities under the Ganga river misison will adapt the (URMP) framework which can be scaled up to all rivers across India.
The URMP framework follows an integrated ( project + planning) approach to manage the river and it's associated (waterbodies + wetlands+ nallahs+ drains) elements in a city sustainably (multifaceted). The framework is designed in a simple , scientific and robust manner, yet kept generic and replicable as it can be applied to all the cities. The interventions are backed financially and are sync with other plans like the development plan. The plan will have periodic monitoring. The three pillars of the framework are environment, social and economic elements.
Image 4: Overview of the URMP framework| Source: Mr. Victor Shinde’s presentation on ‘Reimagining the river’
For each elements, there is a vision. The environmental vision focuses upon the cleaning perspective whereas the social vision looks upon how a river can be celebrated. For each vision, there are objectives with definitive target statements which can be achieved through a set of interventions. The objectives are holistic which talk about the river as an economic opportunity for development with effective regulations and activities in sync with the master plan, promote conservation, recharge and re-use of water, develop eco-friendly riverfronts and inculcate river sensitive behavior among the citizens. A generic framework for all cities is developed but with city specific elements . The interventions will be planning based backed by regulations and norms provided by agencies like CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) and project-based which will help in achieving the objectives and will vary across the cities.
The monitoring of the URMP framework is planned through the URMP index. Under this index, each objective and intervention will be given a weightage. There are various options for financing of the URMP interventions which can be done through available funding like the central and state schemes, viability gap funding, own sources of revenue of ULBs, urban missions, CSRs etc. The Jal Shakti Abhiyan funding can be utilized for revival of water bodies.
The URMP framework has bene planned to result in many environmental, social and economic benefits. Cities will have rich bio-diversity, clean water, vibrant places for cultural events, improved livelihoods and also help in attracting investments in water secured areas. Kanpur will be the first Indian city to implement this framework. A lot of challenges in the city are relooked as opportunities with huge bureaucratic support.
Delhi has the advantage of 22 km stretch of river Yamuna. However, the river is not celebrated by the citizens. The officials are aiming to connect the city back with the river in a healthy, environmental friendly and sustainable friendly manner. The authorities are planning to notify a Green-Blue Policy which will be integrated with regulations in the Delhi Development Plan 2041.
River as an opportunity:
The rights of the river can be dignified when the river as a system is managed with an integrated approach (though not integrated governance) where multiple agencies are present however channeled. The URMP framework is necessary as a tool for cities to systematically plan their river systems. City masterplans need to address all the issues and with this, integrated institutional management is the need of the hour. With years of civilization built on rivers, they have a spiritual value attached and hence respected a lot. They must be looked not as a detrimental tool of destruction but as a constructive tool to foster it. Sensitization becomes very important among the needs of the city. Still a long way to go and learn from water leader cities across the world.
For more information, watch the Master Class 09 “Reimagining the rivers” on the link:
Supported Documents and References:
1. Urban River Management MasterPlan, NIUA
2. Urban River Management Plan, Elements and Guidance Note, NIUA
About the Speaker:
Dr. Victor R. Shinde is a senior water management expert with the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA). He leads the Environmental Division of the team that is preparing the next Master Plan for Delhi. He is also the Team Leader of a project with the National Mission for Clean Ganga that is supporting the towns along the main stem of the Ganga to develop river-specific management plans. He has over 17 years of experience in diverse domains such as urban environmental management; integrated water resources management; water security enhancement; climate change adaptation in the water sector; flood risk assessment; and M&E frameworks for the water and environmental sector.
Blog by Saubiya Sareshwala