Note: I originally published this post for the Global Water Alliance. I’m not sure if the organization still exists. I’ve tweaked the post a little bit to fit this website. The original post can be found here. Also, I’ve removed some images due to copyright concerns, so you may find an odd gap.

This week I would like to focus on the East Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Wetlands. This case is not only interestingly unique, but it also offers the lesson that water issues are deeply intertwined with political, health, economic, and social issues. This suggests that any solution to problems like this one must account for the complex crossroads of these different topics.

Kolkata is the capital city of West Bengal on the far northeastern end of India. It is the 3rd largest city in India, with a city population of roughly 4.5 million and an urban area population of about 14 million as of 2011.[1] The 12,500 hectare wetlands lie just to the east of the center city area, and they act as a natural filter for the city’s sewage and other waste—hence, the wetlands have commonly been dubbed the “natural kidneys” of Kolkata.[2]

Miraculously, the EKW enables Kolkata to function with almost no infrastructure for sewage treatment or waste disposal. In fact, Kolkata has no formal sewage treatment plant at all![3] Instead, sewage and waste are funneled eastwards into the wetlands, where the combination of sunlight and water forms the perfect breeding ground for algae. As sewage passes through the wetlands, the algal photosynthesis cleans it more effectively than a traditional waste treatment facility. This naturally treated water is then used to irrigate vegetables, which sit on composting trash.[4]

Even further, fish feed on the nutrient-rich waste and algae, which has spurred lucrative fish farming throughout the wetlands. According to the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority, there are 254 sewage-fed fisheries in the wetlands.

The Times of India reports that, in total, there are over one million fish and vegetable farmers (although some sources claim 1.5 million, and others as low as 60,000) living in the wetlands, and they produce 15,000 tons of fish and 150 tons of vegetables each year.[5] These foods, in turn, are sold back to the people of Kolkata—forming a natural cycle between the city and wetlands.

It is also highly likely that the EKW provide natural protection for the city on two fronts. First, the wetlands serve as a barrier to West Bengal’s frequent monsoon floods. Second, many believe that the vast amount of algae helps to alleviate Kolkata’s air pollution problems. Still, because of the lack of knowledge surrounding the wetlands, these claims cannot be made with certainty.

Despite the clear importance of the wetlands to Kolkata’s livelihood, the EKW are shrinking. While it does not seem that there is consensus on exactly how much—one source claims 0.97% per year, and others simply cite “relentless encroachment”—there are certainly many personal accounts of new developments. Satellite imagery appears to show some urban expansion, but it is difficult to see.

Regardless of uncertainties, urbanization and population growth certainly pose a serious threat to the wetlands. While the city center of Kolkata has not been growing quickly in the last decade, and has even shrunken in population recently, the greater urban area is expanding dramatically. In order to expand, the city must encroach upon the wetlands.

Technically, the city cannot expand into the wetlands. There are several regulations protecting the wetlands from development. The EKW were deemed a Ramsar location in 2002, granting the region some international attention. Then, the establishment of the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority in 2006 led to legal framework establishing the wetlands’ boundaries and prohibiting new development within that region. Anybody found to be violating these regulations potentially faces three years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Rupees (~1,574 USD).

Even so, development continues. This is the result of the combination of “land sharks” and corruption in the government, as the wetlands are a goldmine for profitable development projects. Recently it was reported that the workers of two cooperatives in the EKW have been made an offer: take 100,000 Rupees and walk away, or hired thugs will come take the land by force. One woman reports that, on June 21st of this year, she and her father were brutally beaten by a mob and the Ward Councilor for reporting illegal construction. They were forced to flee to the city with family.

It is clear that this problem is intertwined with several issues. The wetlands provide public health and infrastructure benefits for the region, an income for many people, and act as a natural buffer to threats from the elements. Yet, the combination of economic incentive, government corruption, and natural population growth is threatening to destroy the wetlands. I highlight the case of the EKW in order to show that the problems of the global water crisis are complex in their nature, and therefore require solutions that account for these complexities.

Please feel free to leave any comments or criticisms. Sources that were not hyperlinked are below:

[1] Cox, Wendell. “The Evolving Urban Form: Kolkata: 50 Mile City.” New Geography. Newgeography.com, 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 06 July 2015.

[2] Suutari, Amanda. “India – East Calcutta – Making the Most of It: Wastewater, Fishponds, and Agriculture.” The EcoTipping Points Project. Ecotippingpoints.org, July 2006. Web. 06 July 2015.

[3] Dhar, Sujoy. “Wetlands Transform a City’s Sewage Through a Bit of Solar Alchemy.” Next City. Nextcity.org, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 July 2015.

[4] Suutari, Amanda. “India – East Calcutta – Making the Most of It: Wastewater, Fishponds, and Agriculture.” The EcoTipping Points Project. Ecotippingpoints.org, July 2006. Web. 06 July 2015.

[5] Kundu, Nitai, Dr., and Ritesh Kumar. “East Kolkata Wetlands.” Ed. Mausumi Pal, Anjana Saha, Pranati Patnaik, Satish Kumar, and Kamal Dalakoti. Comp. Subhadeep Debnath. East Kolkata Wetlands 1 (2010): 1-19. Wetlands. East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority and Wetlands International. Web. 6 July 2015.