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Remodeling conservation with nature-based solutions

Loktak Lake

Manipur Government and its line departments need to re-work on their planning process from a different perspective other than the conventional engineering mindset and activities, particularly when it comes to the management and conservation of landscapes that support vital biodiversity and which are sources of food and water security for both humans and the wildlife that they support.  

By Salam Rajesh

A paradigm shift is needed towards developing infrastructure that respects the natural flows of water, sediment and species with the aim to safeguard the health and functioning of ecosystems, writes author Bregje van Wesenbeeck and others in a recent publication outlining guidelines on Natural System Analysis in addressing restoration of natural ecosystems vital in fighting depleting ecosystems and natural landscapes due to climate crisis and upscaled human interventions.

The technical guideline series on ecosystem restoration featured by EcoShape and Wetlands International under the theme ‘System Understanding; Building with Nature (2021)’ re-looks at how nations need to remodel their approaches in coping with ecosystems that are fast eroding from pressures external and within.

At the global scale, discussions on ecosystem restoration features as one of the foremost topics in addressing climate emergencies. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 13, Climate action) of the United Nations lay particular emphasis in re-thinking on the lines of nature-based solutions in restoring ecosystems to their near natural conditions. The stress is on achieving restorations with near-natural solutions rather than inclined to conventional engineering models that are viewed as negative to encouraging near-natural rejuvenation of rivers, wetlands, coastline estuaries, deltas and other water bodies.

Specifying on the need for natural system analysis, the authors of the guideline stresses that “System analysis is key to understanding the environment in which infrastructural developments are planned. In addition, knowledge of the natural system is required for the analysis of hazards that threaten people, assets and economic development, e.g. landslides, floods or erosion. A deep understanding aids in analyzing the risks and opportunities and can ultimately determine the success of interventions. System analysis should therefore be based on a combination of theoretical understanding of natural systems and thorough insight into site-specific processes”.

This explanation and understanding is typically missing in most of the project proposals by government agencies in Manipur while taking up different ‘developmental’ schemes related to water bodies and other landscapes. There are proposals that seek intervention in important water bodies like the Ramsar site Loktak Lake, Pumlen Pat, Lamphelpat, Nambul River, Manipur River and few others. The question is on how much of understanding and rational thinking on natural system analysis for these projects were considered by the project proponents in conceptualizing their projects.

Discussing on environment and climate related issues, the guideline does not mince words when it points out that traditional engineering interventions to address these problems are often considered first. The guideline outlines that there is ‘an increasing need for self-sustaining strategies that integrate the natural system and the socio-economic system as intrinsic parts over longer periods of time’, and that ‘there is a growing perception that management interventions that integrate natural systems and provision of ecosystem services can be cost-effective and have the potential to offer a range of co-benefits to society, namely food security, livelihood development, carbon storage and biodiversity conservation’.

It is quite interesting to reflect here that the same discussion at global context is truly relevant to the local context wherein project conceptualization for managing water bodies or natural landscapes is seen from the perspective of conventional engineering activities right at the outset of the planning process. The management of Loktak Lake, for example, has been purely from the perspective of conventional engineering rather than looking from the perspective of environmental and ecological aspects on long term basis.

The modeling of conservation strategies for Loktak has been contested by environmentalists on the ground that the scientific temperament is missing and that the conventional engineering activities have caused more harm than good to the natural ecosystem of the lake. Intervention through nature-based solutions appears to be absolutely missing as in the case of lake management strategy for Loktak. Similarly, the proposal for rejuvenation of Lamphelpat wetland by a government agency lacks scientific temper and is being seen primarily from the engineering aspect, which could do more harm than good in the long term.

Wesenbeeck and co-authors argue that nature-based solutions such as ‘Building with Nature’ are increasingly becoming popular across the world: “More and more projects aim to include natural functions in infrastructure development in a better way. This implies that the natural system constitutes an intricate part of the design of infrastructure, and that natural system understanding is essential for Building with Nature projects”.

So now it comes down to the core discussion as to what extent planners in the State are incorporating ideas on integrating natural system understanding in project conceptualization. Coming back to the Loktak example, it has not been seen how project proponents have worked on integrating the natural system of the floating biomass in the lake to come up with solutions in addressing ecological stabilization and livelihoods security by utilizing the extensive biomass in an integrated wise use manner. Mechanical removal and harvesting of the biomass using expensive machinery has proved fruitless, and nothing much has been gained during the past two decades of activity in the lake.

Quite understandably, Wesenbeeck and co-authors point out that “Inclusion of natural processes and functions is key for long-term sustainable management. Frequently, integration of water flows, sediment transport, nutrient cycling and wildlife populations fail to be considered in detail in infrastructure projects”. This speaks volume of the push and pulls on observed failures in lake management strategy for Loktak Lake specifically, and which is equally true of the other landscapes in the State where projects have been initiated.

Manipur Government and its line departments need to re-work on their planning process from a different perspective other than the conventional engineering mindset and activities, particularly when it comes to the management and conservation of landscapes that support vital biodiversity and which are sources of food and water security for both humans and the wildlife that they support. Considering projects solely from the factor of short term benefits – read as political mileage and personal benefits for individuals rather than communities – can be disastrous in the long run.

The authors of the guideline assert that “A central element of the Building with Nature approach is the essential role that the natural system plays in the design. To truly make use of ecosystem services and to conserve or restore natural processes and functions, the natural system needs to be well understood, both in a qualitative and in a quantitative sense. This guidance targets not only officials at governmental infrastructure departments that allocate infrastructure investments, but also implementation agencies, engineers and NGOs who assess feasibility of green and grey infrastructure and finalize this into design and implementation”.

In the broader sense, the guideline targets all groups who work on restoration and conservation projects. The thrust is in understanding on how the natural systems work rather than taking up a management plan that would seek to eliminate the natural system in the very process by not understanding how the system functions in its natural state. This eventually speaks volumes on the controversies surrounding the (ill) management of Loktak Ramsar site.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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