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Let rivers be rivers, they make best riverfronts

The rejuvenation of the Yamuna is one of the 12 key areas the AAP promises to address. After its gets full statehood, states the manifesto, the Delhi government will align multiple agencies to transform the Yamuna “just like the River Thames in London or the River Cheonggyecheon in Seoul”.

columns Updated: Apr 29, 2019 15:28 IST
Shivani  Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
aap,yamuna,seoul
The AAP manifesto promises a “beautiful riverfront” and an amusement park in the area surrounding the Signature Bridge. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

A city with world-class aspirations, Delhi often looks to emulate the best urban practices from around the globe. Promising a major transformation if it gets full statehood for Delhi, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in its manifesto talks about making the city “one of the cleanest in the world, similar to London or Singapore, within five years”.

The rejuvenation of the Yamuna is one of the 12 key areas the AAP promises to address. After its gets full statehood, states the manifesto, the Delhi government will align multiple agencies to transform the Yamuna “just like the River Thames in London or the River Cheonggyecheon in Seoul”. A multi-agency approach, with or without achieving full statehood, is a must to revive the Yamuna. So is drawing from global expertise. London’s Thames river, which was in the 1950s declared “biologically dead” by the Museum of Natural History, as reported by the BBC, was revived over time by installing efficient treatment plants, restoring the Victorian-era sewerage network and by enforcing laws that stopped factories from throwing dirty water into the river.

At the same time, Delhi needs its own plan to address its unique reality. Despite the encroachments — unauthorised colonies, Metro yards, train stations, a temple complex and residential apartments — a huge floodplain remains intact. Few, if any, megacities in the world can boast of such vast unclaimed expanses flanking their rivers.

Most western cities compromised floodplains centuries ago by heavily urbanising its riverbanks and wetlands. In London, at least 1.5 million people live and 480,000 properties are already built on the floodplain of the Thames and its tributaries. As much as 15% of London, including the stately riverside structures, sits on the floodplain. “What we call the beautiful riverfronts are basically canal fronts,” said Manoj Misra, the convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.

Encasing a river in concrete is fraught with dangers. Despite the Thames barrier, floods are the biggest threat to London and a significant proportion of London’s critical infrastructure is at increased risk, warns the city’s climate change plan, pointing to excessive urbanisation around the Thames.

Parts of European cities, such as Budapest, Vienna, Dresden, Passau, Prague and Bratislava, were destroyed by the 2013 floods because they are built on the Danube riverfront. According to the World Wide Fund For Nature, Europe’s longest river has seen 80% of its floodplains disappear in the last century and a half. The Rhine, the second longest, has lost more than 85% of its floodplains.

While the AAP manifesto promises a ban on unauthorised constructions on Yamuna bank, it is crucial to remember that any attempt at concretisation or even landscaping can compromise the biological and physical capacities of the floodplains essential to keep the river alive.

It is tempting to get impressed with projects like Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon revival, where authorities brought down the expressway and reclaimed the stream below. The flow of water and vegetation were restored, a flood-wall built, and, as air and noise pollution levels fell, the area became a thriving public place. But the Cheonggyecheon is “not a natural stream systematically restored”, wrote Eunseon Park, a researcher from the Yonsei University’s Urban Sustainability Transitions lab, in an article quoted in The Guardian in May 2016. The channel gets pumped water to maintain the perennial flow and “because the bottom of the stream is made of concrete, it is nearly incapable of performing any purification functions,” wrote Park.

Cheonggyecheon was an almost dead stream when it was “restored” artificially. Such methods do not apply to a living river like the Yamuna. Although the Seoul experiment, minus the concretisation, could be useful for freeing up Delhi’s numerous stormwater drains choked with sewage or buried under garbage.

The AAP manifesto promises a “beautiful riverfront” and an amusement park in the area surrounding the Signature Bridge. Instead, say experts, wetlands on floodplains need to be restored for recharging groundwater, preventing floods and retaining the natural ecosystems, much on the lines of the Yamuna biodiversity park. Activists such as Misra insist that the Yamuna floodplains should be legally protected as an eco-sensitive zone or a sanctuary.

For the Yamuna to stay alive, we need to ensure the environmental flow and not dam the river dry. For the Yamuna to stop being a drain, we have to better manage our effluents and waste. For the Yamuna to remain Delhi’s insurance for freshwater, we must stop cluttering the floodplains and allow the river breathing space. No human efforts can create a more beautiful riverfront than one shaped and reshaped by a vibrant, clean and life-giving river.

First Published: Apr 29, 2019 04:34 IST