I never miss a chance to soak up the view of the city whenever I am on the 17th floor of the HT building. From up there, one can still spot almost all of central Delhi's landmarks: the medieval domes, Nehru stadium and Pragati Maidan. Last week, I caught a rare view of the Yamuna. It seemed like a mirage.
In Delhi, monsoon is the only time the Yamuna behaves like a river. The surplus rainwater from the upstream allows it to reclaim the floodplain. It increases its span and flow. It even appears blue from a distance.
How do Delhi residents react to a river in flow? Going by the hyperventilating TV reports, they fear a deluge of the Waterworld variety every time the riverbed fills up with rainwater. But can one fault them when most of the new residents of Delhi have always known the Yamuna as an oversized toxic sewer?
Last week, HT reported on the government's plan to seek foreign participation in reviving the Yamuna. We could pick up techniques on river cleaning but the plan to develop our riverfront has to be our own.
Even after all those encroachments in the form of unauthorized colonies, metro yards, train stations, bus depot, a temple, residential complexes, and power plants, a huge floodplain is left unclaimed in Delhi. Not many urban centres in the world can boast of such vast expanses along their rivers.
Most western cities compromised their floodplains centuries ago by heavily urbanising on its rivers and wetlands. Paris, for instance, has all major landmarks such as Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, Eiffel Tower and the Musée d'Orsay built on the Seine floodplains. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development last year warned that a once-a-century event (the last big flood was in 1910) would cripple France's commercial, political and cultural centre.
According to WWF's report 'Keeping the River Alive', over 200 years, the Rhine has lost more than 85% of its floodplain due to dams, dykes and urbanization, resulting in dramatic reduction in its natural flood retention functions as witnessed in the floods during 1993-95. The floodplain of the Danube and its five tributaries had seen a decline of 80%.
At least 1.5 million people live in the floodplain of the Thames and its tributaries where the stately riverside structures of London also sit. Two years back, I was shocked watching, on news, Vltava waters flooding the heritage esplanades - and threatening to knock down the Charles Bridge with accumulated debris--just days after I flew home from Prague. The Czech capital just like Budapest, Vienna, Dresden, Passau or Bratislava (all affected by the 2013 floods) is built right on the river it flanks.
"In most developed cities in the world, multi-channel rivers have been turned into single-channel canals," says Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. "They appear attractive but that is not what you call river restoration." It was on Misra's petition that the NGT ordered Maili se Nirmal Yamuna Revitalisation Project-2017.
If at all, we could learn from the west how they are undoing the damage they perpetuated on their riverfronts for centuries. The idea of freeing rivers is gaining ground in many countries. After building dykes to keep waters from entering the country for 800 years, the Dutch are now implementing the "Room for the River' project. They are moving dykes back, increasing the depth of flood channels, and constructing a flood bypass. The Dutch government also demolished 50 houses and some shops to make room for the river Waal.
Relocating a fifth of its population that lives on the floodplain is not an option for Delhi. But there should not be any excuses for not removing non-residential structures, upscale farmhouses or imposing a permanent ban on fresh construction in the floodplains.
That the river needs fresh water to live is native wisdom. We don't need foreign consultancy for that. If we stop throwing waste, the river will stop being a drain. If we stop cluttering the riverbed, it will have breathing space. If we don't eye immediate real estate value, the floodplain will be our insurance for water and fresh air for all times to come. We have to make these choices ourselves.
(The writer tweets as @shivaniss62.)