TheCityFix Labs India – Accelerating Nature-based Solutions in Indian Cities

This blog originally appeared on C-Cube NIUA

India is grappling with a dual conundrum. While the country is going through a phase of rapid unplanned urbanization, it is also facing escalating risks of climate change.

India is the seventh-most vulnerable country with respect to climate extremes. As per a recent CEEW report, 27 of 35 states and union territories are highly vulnerable to extreme hydro-met disasters and their compounded impacts which include increasing heat waves and droughts and frequent events of waterlogging and floods. These issues disproportionately affect the urban poor who live in ill-protected informal settlements.

Prioritizing low carbon development and climate resilient infrastructure, as part of the estimated $700 Bn infrastructure requirement for Indian cities between 2021 to 2031, can address these climate risks, protect lives and livelihoods, and prevent large scale economic losses. To this end, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) can play a critical role. The NbS approach encompasses techniques to increase and restore our pool of environmental resources. It also helps address societal challenges like climate change, poverty, resource use and efficiency. The solutions are relatively low-cost (vs. grey infrastructure or technology-based solutions) and sustainable; and offer myriad benefits including disaster risk reduction, carbon sequestration, mitigation of heat islands, promotion of water resilience and food security and improved human health. Nature-based solutions has also demonstrated excellent returns on investment, generating on average between 7 and 40 jobs per $1 million invested.

Urban NbS differs from rural NbS solutions, like agroforestry and afforestation, that generally require large tracts of land and are largely managed by communities. Urban NbS can vary in scale ranging from building/plot level solutions (vertical gardens, green roofs) to local/neighborhood (raingardens, block and avenue plantations, urban parks) and regional (wetland conservation, urban forests, mangrove protection and restoration) interventions. Interesting examples of urban NbS include the widely adopted urban farming initiative in Malawi, Africa, which demonstrated economic co-benefits, Brazil’s first community-driven rain garden project – Araucárias Square in Sao Paulo, which illustrated eco-system services benefits and China’s Sponge City Programme (SCP), a large scale urban NbS program aimed at climate-proofing cities and building good water management practices.

Indian governments have been undertaking various schemes to promote NbS interventions in cities. At the Center, schemes such as the Smart City Mission, AMRUT, the Nagar Van Scheme and Jal Shakti Abhiyan are implementing climate resilient projects across cities including lake restoration and rejuvenation, development of urban forests, and natural circular economy approaches for the treatment and reuse of wastewater. States are also taking a lead on schemes such as Maharashtra’s Maajhi Vasundhara Abhiyan and Kerala’s Horticulture Mission’s promotion of urban farming with subsidies. At the city level, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Delhi and Madurai are incorporating blue-green infrastructure into the city development plans, and some like Surat have developed heat and clean air action plans.

Despite these endeavours, urban NbS interventions in the country are yet to see significant scale. The requirement of large land parcels for most solutions is a significant challenge in the urban context. Multiple agencies often come into play depending on the size of the land required, demanding larger coordination efforts. Other challenges include limited awareness and capacity (technical and financial) to implement and maintain NbS on the ground. The NbS business model has not found proper articulation, because of which, post implementation, there is a lack of ownership for such projects, leading to long-run ineffectiveness and poor maintenance. Governance structures that hinder innovation, the absence of standard specifications and impact measurement framework, and long gestation periods for effective outcomes leads to the prioritization of grey infrastructure solutions. Finance also remains scarce as private investors generally favor immediate results and measurable outcomes.

To address these challenges and help better articulate the case for Urban Nature based Solutions, WRI India, within the Cities4Forests initiative, has launched ‘TheCityFix Lab: Accelerating Nature-Based Solution – Steering India Towards a Resilient Future’ with the support of Caterpillar Foundation, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Administration, Govt. of United Kingdom and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. This Lab has 2 broad goals — The first is to identify, test, and pilot innovative and promising solutions pertaining to air, water, and green space management towards mainstreaming NbS in India. The second goal, which will be achieved in collaboration with the Lab partners, is the creation of the ‘India Forum on Nature-based Solutions’ that will act as a bridge to leverage the combined resources of stakeholders for overcoming barriers and accelerating the scaling of NbS. This multi-stakeholder platform will also facilitate peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange, to encourage local and regional collaboration to accelerate NbS adoption.

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report points out — with loss and damage rising exponentially, cities need climate finance to build resilient communities and cities. Through TheCityFix Labs we have the opportunity to test and build lighthouse projects. This can highlight the importance of redirecting public and private finance towards prioritizing such solutions and influence investments that are critical to climate-proof communities and infrastructure.

About the authors:

Dr. Umamaheshwaran Rajasekar
Chair Urban Resilience – Global Resilience Cities Network

Ms. Jaya Dhindaw
Program Director – Integrated Urban Development, Planning, And Resilience, WRI India

Mr. Harshil Suresh
Program Associate – Urban Innovations, WRI India