The monsoon isn’t yet over but Delhi has already received more than its fair share of rainfall: 1,136.8 mm as of September 11. This is over 75% more than the normal (which, as per Indian Meteorological Department, is 648.9 mm). The last time it rained so hard was when 1,155.6 mm rainfall was recorded in 1975 – nearly half a century ago.

In previous years, Delhi usually experienced one or two heavy rain events during the entire season. But this monsoon, the city has witnessed seven such events so far, accounting for more than 60% of the total rainfall.

Neighbouring Gurugram is no different. It has recorded 44% excess rainfall this monsoon season. Four lives were lost there due to the unusually heavy rainfall.

Such unusual weather events have been experienced in several parts of the world this year. China’s Henan province, for instance, reported 302 deaths and 50 people missing as a result of such an extreme weather event in July. Zhengzhou, a city in this province, was the worst affected, receiving 200 mm of rain in one hour on July 20. Earlier that month, floods started in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland after record rainfall across western Europe caused several rivers to burst their banks.

On September 2, the New York City metropolitan area was struck by sudden disaster as the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded subways, roads, and homes. At least 13 people were drowned in their own basement apartments in New York City while at least 51 lives were lost across the Northeast US.

On the other extreme, the western part of North America was battling fires amid an intense drought that is affecting water and power supplies. Greece lost 125,000 hectares of forests and arable land to wildfires in August. Across the border, in Turkey, 2,015 forest fires were reported since January. This paled in front of the wildfires witnessed in Siberian Russia this year, which engulfed over 17 million hectares.

In the Amazon, over a thousand major fires have been recorded in this year alone. Closer home, Uttarakhand witnessed contagious forest fires from October last year to April this year due to rising temperatures and scanty rainfall.

Apocalypse now?

In its sixth assessment report published in August, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the water cycle has been intensifying and will continue to intensify as the planet warms. Climate scientists have warned for years that the more humans heat up the planet, drought and extreme rainfall events like these will occur with increasing frequency and intensity.

Climate warming increases evaporation on land, which can worsen drought and create conditions more prone to wildfire and a longer wildfire season. At the same time, a warming atmosphere is associated with heavier precipitation events through increases in the air’s capacity to hold moisture leading to heavier rainfall in shorter duration.

The world population is projected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, and to increase to 9.7 billion in 2050. Urbanisation will continue in both the more developed and the less-developed regions so that, by 2050, the world population is expected to be 67% urban.

Rapid economic development and urbanisation, degraded ecosystems and ageing infrastructure have left cities like Delhi vulnerable to climate change impacts. Delhi, which has a semi-arid climate, is threatened by both extremes of climate change impacts: below normal rainfall leading to drought further aggravated by depleting ground water in the city (as the government’s NITI Aayog think tank warns) and above normal rainfall leading to floods and its attendant problems.

The ability of existing water systems to cater to the demands of the world’s cities is severely challenged, which is expected to worsen with climate change.

A potential lifeline

With changing climate comes a greater demand for proactive adaptation processes, particularly in cities. To address the challenges of climate change, we need to look at a city’s stock of water. The city’s stock of water is the water available within the boundaries of the city and can be categorised into groundwater, water bodies, and anthropogenic storage structures like reservoirs and tanks. Water bodies in cities represent a part of city’s stock of water.

Historically, urban centres have evolved near water bodies for the ecosystem services they provide. Over time, these water bodies have been heavily degraded as a result of rampant development for supplying drinking water, carrying waste, irrigation, facilitating transport and industry and providing space for human settlements.

The negative impact of urbanisation on water bodies is wide-ranging and multifaceted, compromising their ability to deliver the services for which, the original urban centres had developed. Many water bodies in cities suffer from water quality issues such as toxic cyanobacterial blooms, fish kills due to anoxia and the general deterioration of the aquatic habitat. These unfavourable ecological conditions not only affect the species living in the water, but also hurt human health.

Water bodies can play an important role in addressing climate change impacts in cities. Firstly, they act as a perennial source of ground water recharge providing water security to cities in times of drought.

Secondly, they function as a sponge absorbing and storing excess water during extreme precipitation. Thirdly, they act as natural carbon sinks for greenhouse gas emissions originating primarily from cities. Finally, they serve as heat sinks, reducing urban heat island effects. Water bodies are known to register even lower surface temperatures than green spaces in the same weather conditions providing better cooling benefits in cities.

Conserving non-degraded water bodies, rejuvenating degraded water bodies and managing them in a sustainable manner can help build climate change resilience in cities.

The value of water

Easy availability of affordable piped water from far off dams or water from borewells has created a disconnect between the people and their water bodies. Unlike earlier times, the value of water bodies as a social and economic need has diminished as people are no longer dependent on co-located water bodies. Tangible change in the state of water bodies in cities is only possible when the people and the government realise the value of their myriad ecosystem services. Any number of remedial measures without this realisation will always fall short and the state of water bodies in cities will remain grim.

This is what has happened with Najafgarh jheel, a transboundary lake lying in Delhi and Gurugram, the second-largest water body in the region after Yamuna. Once measuring 220 sq kms, it has now shrunk to mere seven sq kms due to anthropogenic pressures.

Delhi and Gurugram suffer from urban heat island effects, water scarcity in summers and flooding during monsoons, which is expected to intensify with climate change. Conserving and rejuvenating this waterbody can alleviate these challenges in both cities.

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which is credited with reviving the Hauz Khas lake in New Delhi, has filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal to have Najafgarh jheel notified as a wetland. Notifying the jheel as a wetland will essentially protect it from encroachments. Though it has been seven years since the petition was filed, there is no outcome in sight.

In September last year, the National Green Tribunal had ordered the governments of Delhi and Haryana to prepare an Environment Management Plan for Najafgarh jheel. While Delhi has submitted the draft plan, Haryana is yet to prepare it. This inaction on the part of Haryana government only reveals its reluctance to notify the jheel as a wetland.

At best, the government might notify a small area of Najafgarh jheel in Haryana as a wetland as a barely perceptible nod to the National Green Tribunal and the environmentalists, but it will be mere tokenism. This, it will do by blatantly ignoring the High Flood Level of the jheel, which is 212.5m above mean sea level. Globally, no construction activity is permitted within the High Flood Level line attained in a water body in the last 100 years.

Unfortunately, this kind of tokenism is true of almost all water bodies in India’s urban landscapes. With climate change impacts hanging like a sword over the planet, water bodies offer cities a ray of hope. The benefits emanating from conserving and rejuvenating water bodies are numerous. We can overlook this at our own peril.

Ritu Rao is a PhD scholar at Teri School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi with research interest in urban water bodies.