Ravi River Urban Development Project — A Threat To Local Economy & Ecology
In a deeply troubling development, the implementation of the Ravi River Urban Development Project (RRUDP) has been initiated. Work on the project, in the form of land acquisition, dredging and earthworks, has already commenced regardless of the fact that a public hearing on RRUDP’s environmental impact assessment, scheduled for February 21, 2021, has yet to take place. The purpose of the public hearing, called by Punjab’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is to allow the would-be affectees and the public at large to voice their concerns, objections, and suggestions etc. with respect to the project. The initiation of RRUDP before completion of due process and receipt of approval from the concerned department raises a number of important questions.
Inequitable resource allocation
According to its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, the project will impact about one hundred thousand persons belonging to 15,000 households. The livelihood of the majority of this population is dependent on agriculture, farming and cattle rearing within this site. Among this population, 20,000 persons, belonging to almost 100 villages located in the riverbed, will be displaced in their entirety and will have to be resettled. In fact, their displacement has already begun with the commencement of works on the project, while no alternative housing or means of livelihood has been provided to them.
The conversion of one hundred thousand acres of agricultural land for housing the rich is brazenly ignorant of ground realities and the need of the hour, which is to provide affordable housing to the poor. The conversion of agricultural land into developed plots is a repetition of mistakes of the past, because of which one-third of Lahore’s population belonging to the upper-income group already take up two-thirds of Lahore’s urban sprawl. The population density in residential areas for the affluent, like DHA, Bahria Town, Lake City, etc. is less than 30 persons per acre. The RRUDP is poised to repeat the same inequitable distribution of resources by proposing to house a mere 12 million persons in an area of 100,000 acres. Such a plan is in clear violation of the present government’s manifesto of providing affordable housing, as well as its assurances of allowing no encroachments on agricultural land.
In order for private developers to be allocated agricultural land to convert into urban land, a stringent set of rules and regulation needs to be followed. It is also vital to specify the proposed population density in the land to be developed and to ensure an affordable cost of construction so as to enable access of housing to the lower-income strata. However, these details have not been included in the present EIA report of the RRUDP, indicating that provisions for the conservation of productive land have not been taken into consideration. This also suggests that the land is simply being doled out to land mafias, whose only objective is making money through land speculation, as evidenced repeatedly in the past.
The RRUDP will encroach upon the floodplain, altering the basic natural landscape of the river irreversibly. This means that River Ravi will have to be channelised, which goes against all principles of sustainable development and the ecological sustainability of a river and its environment. It is important to remember that riverbanks are an integral part of the river ecosystem and that the hydraulics of a river should be maintained without defining any edges for the river. Keeping this in mind, the channelisation of River Ravi and building 3 barrages along the length of the project (spanning 46 km) is simply not an option. Employing river training to reclaim land for urban development cannot be considered an improvement to the environment by any definition.
The Punjab Floodplain Act of 2016 clearly defines the principles and policy for the development of floodplains and the rules for their management. These principles, based on scientific evidence and the specific needs of the population, need to be followed in letter and spirit.
The RRUDP also considers setting up wastewater treatment plants. Seven treatment plants are proposed to be set up at the outfalls of the Ravi. However, the intention behind these is suspect, at best, seeing as a large number of drains (originally stormwater channels) running through the city are filled with sewage and industrial waste. Leaving the city in a dirty and neglected state and focusing on new areas is a questionable strategy for urban development. A far more effective strategy would be to focus on cleaning the drains running through the city and to rehabilitate those areas using bioremediation techniques. Cleaning up these drains will, in turn, put less pressure on the proposed treatment plants, which already cost millions of rupees and demand assiduous maintenance. (Below: A video discussion with activists on the project)
Impact on historical sites
The channelising of the river with a 9-meter rise in the water level will also result in damage to, and even possible obliteration and submersion of, the historical site of Kamran’s Baradari. In addition, Jahangir’s Tomb stands almost on the banks of Ravi. No details have been provided in the EIA about the protection and maintenance of authenticity of either of these sites. In fact, Jahangir’s Tomb has not even been mentioned in the report.
The indicators used in the EIA are based on data that is over 7-8 years old and, therefore, obsolete. There are strict criteria for measuring the ecological footprint of any development project. However, none of these criteria have been taken into consideration in the EIA. Therefore, the local population is more than justified in rejecting the project for its threat to their livelihood and habitation. Furthermore, the inevitable environmental damage resulting from the unchecked continuation of the project warrants a thorough review and a reconsideration of its feasibility. Recommendations of an alternative approach, which is sustainable both environmentally and economically, need to be explored seriously. Finally, in the place of the project in its current form, the prospects for the restoration of the river landscape to its natural conditions need to be taken into consideration and worked on, as a matter that demands much more urgency.
Fauzia Qureshi is a senior architect, conservationist and educator based in Lahore. Her primary interest in architecture has been to study and learn from the traditional built environment and her inspiration to design and build come from these time tested design details and techniques. Fauzia has been teaching urban design and urban planning focusing on the low income sector of the developing world, conservation issues, sustainability and women and space.