Green lessons from Gujarat

Written by Caroline Twigg | Updated: Aug 9 2012, 09:03am hrs
Gujarats cities are demonstrating how to meet the challenges of population explosion, climate change and environmental protection, as part of a global partnership between forward-looking cities and leading companies. Working with the Urban Infrastructure Initiative, a global project of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), they are showing that collaboration between public and private sectors, and potentially public-private partnerships (PPPs), can be a good vehicle to help cities be more sustainable, as they become home to a majority of the population.

Gujarat will soon have more people living in cities than in villages for the first time in history. By 2030, two-thirds of the states population will be urban. Ahmedabad and Surat will be teeming with eight million people each.

This is a global trend. The United Nations estimates that three million more people move into cities every week. It means that sustainable urban development is essentialnot just for the sake of all these city dwellers, but for the sake of the Earth and all life that it supports.

Gujarat recognises this imperative. It is the only Indian state with a Climate Change Department and was the first state in India to announce a comprehensive solar energy policy. But sustainable development poses huge challenges for any city or state government, especially concerning infrastructure. For example, although Gujarat ranks fourth in India in wastewater treatment capacity, its Class 1 cities need to double their treatment capacity to meet the immense load resulting from the unprecedented growth.

Rapid growth and the unplanned nature of much city development create severe infrastructure issues, compounded by inadequate information in many cities about the population and where they live. Data is not standardised and is only available haphazardly, with duplicate and inaccurate data leading to errors. Rajkot and Vadodara are among cities recognising this shortcoming. They are looking to Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map and understand their cities and manage them better.

The infrastructure challenges are increasingly complex and inter-connected. The solutions therefore need to cut across silos and technical specialties within city and state authorities, integrating individual technologies and innovations. Surat has begun to seize the opportunities, becoming the first city in India to generate electricity from sewage gas.

In some cases, public-private partnerships can provide effective solutions. For example, in Gujarat, Ahmedabad BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) is a rapid transport system developed by Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board (GIDB) with several private sector entities involved in different parts of the project and with technical expertise provided from Centre for Planning and Technology University. The project won the global Best Sustainable Transport Award in 2011. In Assam, the Guwahati Waste Management Company Private Ltd (GWMCPL) was set up as a PPP to develop a Refuse-Derived Fuel plant to handle mixed municipal solid waste, to build a compost plant for organic and green waste, and to develop a power plant to generate 6 MW of electricity. The concession period was 20 years, and the project has successfully optimised costs through its integrated approach which can treat different waste streams at the same place, has minimised landfill requirement, reduced pollution, has improved socio-economic conditions of local communities, and generates green electricity.

The Urban Infrastructure Initiative (UII) is working with a number of cities around the world to demonstrate this potential. Within its global project, the UII has worked in India because it is essential to show that city/business collaboration can work in such a fast-growing, populous country with a wide range of geographies and a diverse urban story.

In Gujarat, the work specifically addressed energy efficiency and wastewater management, with urban planning as the overarching tool to drive reductions in cities total ecological footprint. Following discussions with state and city officials, as well as other stakeholders, the UII team identified a range of solutions. Based on knowledge of local circumstances and requirements, the solutions were prioritised to clarify the most important actions and the next steps required.

Urban planning is the umbrella under which energy efficiency, wastewater and other sustainability issues can be tackled. For this, UII identified three broad strategies, covering master planning, regulation and capacity building. The engagement also recognised the need for regulatory strategies and knowledge development covering energy and wastewater, as well as strategies for implementation and, in the case of wastewater, infrastructure development and systems.

Priorities for Gujarats cities include a knowledge partnership programme, retrofitting buildings and equipment for higher energy efficiency, and piloting a project for green community sewage treatment. While these are the priorities, they are also part of a broader integrated strategy to address sustainability.

The most important outcome is a recognition that cities benefit from early input to strategy development from a multi-sector group of companies. This kind of early engagement enables cities to consider a variety of ideas and work with the private sector collectively, rather than only in relation to specific tenders.

A spectrum of management and financial models is available for private sector participation and solutions will differ depending on each citys needs. But it is clear from the UII engagement in Gujarat and elsewhere that early involvement of business may help cities meet the challenge of upgrading infrastructure in an integrated fashion. The private sector can bring technology and skills that complement cities knowledge and expertise in areas such as planning, design and urban development.

I hope cities all over India and elsewhere will seize the opportunity to engage with companies to achieve their sustainability goals, also helping to grow the market for greener technologies and smarter infrastructure.

The author is the country coordinator for the World Business Council for Sustainable Developments activities in India