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Urbanization, climate change, and peri-urban water security

Urbanization processes in South Asia have resulted in the growth of peri-urban spaces. These are intermediary zones between rural areas and urban centres that reveal some features of both; mixed and changing land use, social and economic heterogeneity, and a wide diversity of occupational activities and interests. Land and water use patterns undergo a transformation as land uses change from agricultural to industrial and urban. The process of the growth of modern cities leads to the appropriation of land and water from peri-urban spaces.

There are many different ways in which peri-urban communities in South Asia have lost access to water sources as a consequence of urbanization processes. These include the filling up of water bodies for urban expansion and infrastructure; the physical flows of water from rural to urban areas, for instance, through tankers; the extraction of groundwater by industry and the affluent urban elite; the dumping of urban and industrial waste in peri-urban  water sources and the acquisition of land for urban expansion, on account of which water sources located on those lands may also be lost.

The impacts of these changes have further been aggravated by climatic changes such as those in the frequency, seasonal distribution and timing of rainfall, changes in temperature and evapotranspiration, and incidence of extreme events. Rainfall and urban flooding have also become common. Together these changes have impacted the water security of peri-urban communities in South Asian cities such as Gurgaon and Hyderabad in India, Kathmandu in Nepal, and Khulna in Bangladesh.

While much research over recent years has focused on vulnerability in purely agrarian or urban contexts, peri-urban contexts need special attention

While much research over recent years has focused on vulnerability in purely agrarian or urban contexts, peri-urban contexts need special attention. Policy-makers and planners focus attention on meeting the water supply and infrastructure needs of growing cities, while neglecting the peri-urban spaces from where such water is often diverted. There is also a need to understand the differential vulnerabilities of people inhabiting peri-urban spaces – different groups, men and women. Urbanization and climate change represent a compounding of stresses; at the same time, the intersection of various identities such as those of caste, class, gender and ethnicity shapes the differential vulnerabilities of peri-urban communities.

A wide variety of approaches is needed to address this situation. Advocacy – based on scientific research – to protect urban water bodies could prevent a further loss of the urban commons. Land acquisition and climate change present threats to peri-urban agriculture; building human capital to promote livelihood diversification could serve as a cushion and promote livelihood diversification. Since peri-urban spaces are in transition, social capital can be weak. Interventions that provide forums for civic engagement can improve state accountability to peri-urban communities.

With the advent of urbanization processes, as competing pressures on land and water resources from rural and urban uses increase, there could be an increase in the potential for land and water conflicts. Thus interventions may be needed to balance competing interests; though local power differences may still have a role to play. At the same time, there is a need to understand new and emerging forms of co-operation that may evolve during times of scarcity; or to understand emerging institutional arrangements that promote co-operation. These can provide a base for capacity-building to further strengthen the resilience of communities.

Featured image credit: ‘Newah wash’, Nepal Water Project, by JumHolmes/AusAID. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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