Sustainable environmental services and infrastructure
Leturer: Aromar Revi, Director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore
- What is the philosophy behind universal coverage of basic services and infrastructure?
- What has been achieved in the last two decades (or during the MDG phase) in terms of universal access to infrastructure and services?
- How could the cities approach this challenge of providing equitable, efficient and sustainable services to all in the two decades?
Basic services such as safe drinking water and sanitation, solid and wastewater management, drainage, clean air, access to non-food biomass for fuel, fibre and timber are daily necessities for people living in both urban and rural areas. Access to universal basic services is often limited in many settlements, whether urban or rural, except in high-income countries.
This is partially because of limited investments, but also because they are often considered sub-critical and uneconomical in scale. In larger urban centres and cities, economies of scale do exist because of their size and density. However, service provision and access often becomes an issue because of the sheer size and congestion in these settlements; overuse or pollution of the resource, like groundwater, fractured governance and the concentration of poor and vulnerable people who are often unable to pay the full cost of these services.
There are seven SDGs that link to the provision of sustainable urban environmental services: SDG6 (Clean water and Sanitation) SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) SDG11 (Sustainable Cities, with a target to reduce adverse environmental impact by managing air pollution, municipal and other waste) SDG12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production) and all of them in line with SDG13 (Climate Change) and SDGs 14 and 15 on Life under Water and on Land.
In this lecture we will focus on the question of sustainable environmental services. We often forget that urban regions and their residents are and will continue to be dependent on the biosphere and the environmental services it provides: surface and ground water, soil and land, air in forests, wetlands, coasts and mountain areas. The challenge with the universal provision of environmental services is twofold: the availability of the resource (such as water or fuel, for example) and the equitable distribution of the resource.
Environmental services are typical, ‘non-produce’ functions of natural resources such as land, water, and air, and span a wide spectrum ranging from carbon sequestration and climate regulation to waste decomposition and the purification of water and air.
These services include the provision of raw materials and energy, used to produce goods and services, as well as the absorption of waste from human activities.
There are three broad types of environmental services as classified by the OECD:
- Disposal services, which reflect the functions of the natural environment as an absorptive sink for residuals.
- Productive services, which reflect the economic functions of providing natural resource inputs and space for production and consumption.
- Consumer or consumption services, which provide for physiological as well as recreational and related needs of human beings.
Environmental services and functions are under stress across the world as the global human population increased from just over 1 billion in the early 20th century to the current 7.3 billion.
This has in turn led to increased per capita consumption and a consequent rise in waste creation, highly asymmetric access to resources combined with a lack of respect and understanding of the complex ecological processes involved, and insufficient and often inappropriate environmental regulation.
For instance, less than 50% of the population in parts of Africa and South Asia has access to improved drinking water supply from sustainable sources. Access to improved sanitation systems that do not cause, enhance health risks and irreversibly damaged water sources is critically inadequate, even in parts of South America and East Asia that have made significant progress on meeting the MDGs. There are several problems that arise out of neglect or over-consumption of these environmental services, and they’re interlinked with challenges of sanitation, water supply, waste disposal and health risks.
This is particularly important in low and middle-income countries where populations are growing along with weak institutional capacities to deliver public services. Inadequate safe water supply can lead to severe outbreaks of water-borne diseases in these cities and countries. Poor solid waste management can lead to long-term environmental degradation around dump sites, the expansion of vector-borne diseases and blockage of waterways and drains leading to floods, like those in Mumbai in 2005.
The management of urban ecosystems involves the integrated management of environmental service delivery and reducing the impact of urban activities on them. Land use change, changes in levels of water abstraction and quality due to persistent pollution, poor air quality and high pollution levels, resource depletion, over-consumption and poor waste management practices – all have significant impacts on ecosystem health and resilience.
There are many examples of successful responses to environmental challenges. The urban environmental health and sanitary reforms in many cities in the 19th century helped improve human health, and later, river quality was also improved after the displaced burden of sewer-based sanitation was recognised and addressed.
Releasing urban wastewater into rivers, oceans or in low-density peri-urban and rural areas is a classic example of this environmental displacement, till the birth of the environmental movements that enabled a better understanding of the cyclic relationship between cities and Nature.
Let us look at a few other examples that attempt to address various dimensions of sustainability and environmental services more holistically, the Durban Buffelsdraai Community Reforestation project was established as a project to help offset the carbon costs of being a host city for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The project uses a 100 hectares about a 900 hectares site as a landfill and the remaining as a bio-reserve. The project is led by the eThekwini Municipality in close partnership with local communities, and seeks to maintain the long-term sustainability of the area. The partners have committed to mitigating their carbon footprint by planting indigenous trees and restoring the natural habitat, seeking to offset 42,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over a 20-year period, also acting as a climate mitigation initiative.
In October 2016 over 670,000 trees have been planted, there had been a marked increase in biodiversity and a simultaneous improvement in other ecosystem services such as water quality, flood attenuation, sediment regulation, biodiversity refuge conservation and river flow regulation, in addition to creating over 600 jobs for the surrounding community.
Starting in the 1980s Karachi’s Orangi Pilot Project was established to overcome the constraints faced by the government in improving informal settlements or ‘kacchi abadis’.
Following a series of community meetings as well as research, Sanitation emerged as a primary concern of the residents of these settlements. The Orangi Pilot Project or OPP, was proposed – focusing on addressing the project area sanitation crisis via a collaborative implementation solution, where residents built and installed household and street-level infrastructure and the government installed the linking secondary and trunk infrastructure. Service access rose to over 90% of the settlement and Infant Mortality dropped more than 70% in the first 10 years. Through the OPP Research and Training Institute (RTI) this work continues to expand across Pakistan, helping communities build capacity to address similar challenges collectively and through collaboration.
In the city of Seoul, South Korea, a river restoration project focused on reclaiming the river from an elevated expressway that had been built over it in the 1960s. This expressway was diagnosed with serious structural problems in 2000 that would have cost close to a US$ 100 million to remedy. It was demolished, re-establishing 400 hectares of green space. The project cost about US$ 360 million, social costs were evaluated about US$ 1.9 billion and an estimated US$ 3.5 billion in social benefits stood to be gained.
They include reduced air pollution levels, up to a 5% decrease in upper bound city temperatures, a 50% decrease in average wind speeds, sharp increases in biodiversity of fish species (from 4 to 25), bird species (from 6 to 36) and flood resilience. Yet, this project faced severe criticism because of a doubling of property prices threatening long-term residents with displacement; and that a nearby river and ground water reserves are being pumped to ensure perennial flow in this restored river.
The Kuyasa low-cost urban housing energy upgradation project in Khayelitsha, one of the largest informal settlements of Cape Town has civil society, government and communities coming together to deliver low-cost housing, but also solar water heaters to replace biomass burning. Households involved have enjoyed savings of about R150 per month on energy, respiratory illness has decreased by 76%.
A significant challenge is that most environmental services do not conform to urban administrative boundaries. This exacerbates the risk of their being exposed to the Tragedy of the Commons, where in the short-run users try to maximise benefit, leaving much less for others and future generations to enjoy.
Increasingly scarce surface water sources are forcing cities like Bangalore to pump water from many hundreds of kilometres away, increasing its costs and adding to the city’s energy needs and carbon footprints.
Urbanisation in itself may not be bad for ecosystem health. Many biomes in and around cities are more diverse than rural monocultures driven by commercial agriculture and forestry. Cities offer opportunities to manage ecosystems more sustainably, if appropriate governance and conservation systems are in place like in Vancouver, Durban and Melbourne.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, found that dense urban settlements often impose a lower environmental burden than urban and suburban sprawl – like New York’s Catskill watershed that provides a secure source of water to the city and helps conserve ecosystems, supports livelihood of landowners and farmers and in the long run is also economically efficient.
So what have we learned from this today?
The environment provides us with critical ecosystem services that support the functioning of not just the public utilities and infrastructure, but are also critical for overall human well-being.
Environmental resources often suffer the Tragedy of the Commons and without proper regulatory systems and implementation, the stressed systems can be completely lost for the next generations.
Many attempts at reducing such environmental burden often only displace it spatially and temporally, and fail to mitigate the risk in its entirety.
Cities have the capacity and the opportunity to reduce environmental burden by investing in better land use management, universal infrastructure delivery and the management of their resources to better and efficient regulatory systems.