NMCG & NIUA organized IDEAthon on ‘The Future of River Management’

New Delhi: The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) under the Ministry of Jal Shakti and National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) organized an IDEAthon on “The future of River Management’ to explore how the COVID-19 crisis can shape River Management strategies for the future. Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis has been a challenge for most countries across the globe which has witnessed some sort of lockdown in most of the places. While the general narrative around this crisis has been that of anxiety and concern, the crisis has also thrown up some positive developments. One of these is the visible improvement in the natural environment. Rivers have become cleaner. The air has become fresher. There has been a significant drop in GHG emissions. Animals and birds are returning to and enjoying their habitats. Purely from a river management point of view, in India there has been a noticeable improvement in the water quality of the Ganga and Yamuna in the last few weeks. During the last year or so, the Gangetic Dolphin, an indicator species, has been showing improvements with sightings at several stretches of the river. The sighting of this is more frequent during lockdown in Ganga and its tributaries. Venice’s (in) famously polluted canals have become clearer as tourists stay away. For the first time in recent history, dolphins are back in the waterways of Italy as navigation has stopped.

The only question is how much will change for a long time. The IDEAthon examined how the social angle of rivers can be leveraged on to address other crises. What lessons for river management has the pandemic taught us? And what response mechanisms are needed in the event of a river crisis?

The international webinar conducted yesterday brought together close to 500 participants. The expert panelists were from different countries and international organizations.

National Mission for Clean Ganga had initiated this IDEAthon to garner more attention towards river management and also highlight the interconnectivity of Cities with the River. A different perspective than traditional urban planning methods, the River cities need a special focus to capitalize on not only the socio-cultural significance of the river but also the ecological importance and economic potential which can help the city, if properly planned.

With an intent to mainstream River Management in a city’s Urban Planning framework, NMCG has been developing a template for an Urban River Management Plan with the National Institute of Urban Affairs. The IDEAthon sought to brainstorm the learnings from COVID-19 pandemic, the following lockdown and its impact on river management. Dr. Victor Shinde, NIUA initiated the webinar and set the context as given above and also introduced NIUA collaboration with NMCG in developing the urban river management plan etc.

Shri Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, DG, NMCG, introduced the Namami Gange initiative to the speakers and to the attendees. Namami Gange is one of the largest river rejuvenation programs aimed at ensuring effective abatement of pollution and rejuvenation of the Ganga basin by adopting an integrated river basin approach and promoting inter-sectoral coordination for comprehensive planning and management.

He noted that the river during lockdown is free from the problems of solid waste dumped on its banks by visitors and also effluents from industries and other commercial establishments. The factor of municipal sewage generation and treatment remains more or less same and STPs so far commissioned are working fully. The challenge would be to keep the river in similar condition after lockdown which can be possible with behavioral change to supplement infrastructure creation. COVID 19 and lockdown has shown that the river can be rejuvenated if all of us do the right thing.

He stressed the importance of including urban planning parameters to be river sensitive. The lesson from COVID 19 could be to make urban planning move from only land based to also have human and ecology orientation. The river – people connect also needs to be revitalized. . Citizen engagement programmes designed to lead to a behavioral change, to streamline the people’s efforts in claiming its water resources are the need of the hour. Shri Mishra introduced ‘Ganga Quest’ (an online quiz at gangaquest.com) as one of the initiatives to engage people with knowledge on River Ganga which has evoked a huge response, in the wake of the lockdown, with more than 600,000 students and others joining now.

The Sustainable Development Goals which have a very definitive vision for water governance, are what governments should be aiming towards, especially given the significance of river basin management for India. It necessitates a shift towards multi-stakeholder and inter-ministerial approaches, as well as integrated information systems. NMCG is also working with GIZ in developing the River Basin Organization and also River Basin Planning and Management Cycle to develop an adaptive framework under Namami Gange for Ganga river basin management.

A baseline integration of data systems acquired and accumulated by various Ministries will be helpful in better management and implementation of action plans. Water governance of the future, will have to integrate efforts not only within the government infrastructure, but those of communities, societies, NGOs, action groups, startups and individuals as well. Though it is very difficult to calculate economic value of intangible things but economic evaluation of the ecosystem services is also one of the areas where focus is needed for better management of natural resources. Elaborating further, Mr. Mishra spoke about the concept of ‘Arth Ganga’ envisioned by the Prime Minister while chairing the National Ganga Council. Government expenditures on irrigation, flood control and dams, interventions like promotion of organic farming, fisheries, medical plantation, tourism and transportation and biodiversity parks are some of the proven models of Arth Ganga.

His key learning from the COVID 19 scenario was that it is now, “not the survival of the fittest, but survival of the most adaptive.” He stressed on the idea of adaptive governance which should be how river management is to be approached to incorporate future challenges with collaborative partnership.

Prominent speakers of the IDEAthon included Dr. Peter King, Senior Policy Advisor, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Bangkok, Thailand. Dr. King heads the Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network Secretariat, is a member of the Climate Change Asia Coordination Group, and is Team Leader, Adaptation Project Preparation and Finance on the USAID Adapt Asia-Pacific project. Dr. King presented key drivers for any river basin management plan which will have certain impact in the near future.

These key drivers included the impact of climate change on the river for future planning, how it will impact the water system and what can be done to lower that impact. He stressed the need to look at the Upstream and Downstream of the river where mostly the downstream suffers the impact of activities occurring at the upstream. A river entering a city boundary should leave with at least the same quality of water as it entered with. Hydropower projects that are being developed on the rivers, should be studied along with their impacts such as floods, low e-flow, sedimentation etc. There should be provision for trans-boundary Environmental Impact Assessment for all the new big projects coming up on the river. Financial support and Public participation are key aspects of a river management plan. It is very important to create a data base and use artificial intelligence for the preparation of a river management plan. Dr. King brought out an innovative thought process to look at the COVID crisis as ‘Learn from Nature’. He urged the participants to study the above aspects from Nature’s perspective and learn from what nature has taught us during this Crisis.

Mr. Micheal Affeldt, Head, Los Angeles (LA) River Works Authority, Los Angeles, USA was also a speaker for the IDEAthon. Michael Affeldt is the Director of the LA River Works team in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of City Services. LA River Works leads project coordination, policy development, and engagement, for the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan and LA River-related efforts. He shared his learnings from practice and his experience of working on the LA river master plan. Los Angles city was once formed on the banks of the LA river but the city grew bigger and need is felt to improve connect of people with the river by improving access to the river and making more natural development of parks and public spaces along it. For any river management plan, needs of nature have to be addressed first and then connect river with its surrounding habitat and people.

Dr. Alex Smajgl, Managing Director, Mekong Futures Research Institute, Bangkok, Thailand spoke about the failure of different policy and scientific research implementation on account of not giving due importance to stakeholder’s engagement. There should be policy-science interface for a project to be successful. There should be preparation of engagement framework which will precisely detail out the stakeholder engagement in the project. The lessons which should be kept in mind before preparing a river rejuvenation plan are to have a multi-level, multi sector or cross-level working group, have a shared vision which will make the stakeholders own the project, to understand political risk and to learn from experience and facts. Dr Alex Smajgl is an expert in environmental economics with a focus on trans-disciplinary modelling in the context of natural resource management, development, urbanization and climate change systems.

Dr. Chris Dickens, Principal Researcher Ecosystem, International Water Management Institute is an aquatic ecologist with 30 years’ experience working in three main areas: aquatic ecosystem health, water resource protection including environmental requirements and resource quality objectives and water resource management and governance. Dr. Dickens highlighted the importance of biodiversity in a river management plan. Cities directly and indirectly depend on the ecosystem that exists in and around the rivers and water bodies. Clean rivers and water bodies symbolize that the ecosystem is functioning. It is important to monitor the water quality of the river for different nutrients, algae bloom and other heavy metals so that the ecosystem of the river is not disturbed or destroyed. Data collection on different microbial diversity of the river needs to be done. The relation of river and water body to its ecosystem is important which should be understood.

The IDEAthon led to a very interactive discussion on various aspects of river management. The attendees also took part in parallel polls which were being run during the IDEAthon. Multiple questions were also received from the attendees.

DG, NMCG thanked all the panelists for participation and offered to share their publications, experience etc. Collaboration on different thematic areas would be worked out and thematic webinars/ roundtables would be organized in future with the help of NIUA and other institutions. This would further help in development of the Ganga Knowledge Center.

Namami Gange and NIUA plan to bring out a policy paper based on the deliberations of the IDEAthon. The proceedings of the session will be shortly made available to all through the NMCG website.