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FEATURE: The water security challenge in peri-urban South Asia

In this guest blog, Dik Roth of Wageningen University and Research Centre and his consortium partners report on their recent fieldwork exploring water security challenges in peri-urban South Asia. This research is part of the ‘Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change’ programme, which is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in collaboration with Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Urbanisation is often hailed as a sign of development success, but the changes that come with it are not all positive. These changes are most visible in ‘peri-urban areas’, dynamic zones of transition between urban and rural. Agricultural land is converted for other uses, water is extracted to meet urban demands, and domestic and industrial activity pollutes the environment. Yet, these areas fall under the radar of many researchers and policy-makers, who tend to focus either on urban or rural areas.

Peri-urban zones undergo radical change as a result of urban expansion and population growth. In South Asia, such changes can be clearly seen in rapidly expanding cities like Khulna in Bangladesh, Gurgaon and Hyderabad in India, and Kathmandu in Nepal. These cities are the subjects of our research, which is exploring linkages between urbanisation, climate change and water (in-)security in the region. Our early fieldwork brings to light some of the problems experienced on the fringes of these cities. Despite their diversity, residents share many similar challenges.

In peri-urban Khulna in southwestern Bangladesh, water security is a major problem. Built-up areas are expanding, while bodies of water and areas of fallow land are shrinking. As more people move to the city, demand and competition over these limited resources is changing access rights, creating conflict and leading to stresses on the lives and livelihoods of peri-urban communities. Water quality is also under threat: urban wastewater and solid waste have degraded water sources like the Mayur river, and aggravated drainage problems and flooding. These challenges are increasingly compounded by saline intrusion as sea levels slowly rise. It is increasingly difficult for Khulna’s peri-urban residents to access freshwater for drinking and domestic use.

Pollution of water resources is also a significant challenge for communities living on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. Mamidipally hamlet, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA), is one of 14 villages affected by pollution of groundwater by industries in the surrounding area. Following protests the Andhra Pradesh high court directed the provision of tap water to all 14 affected villages, but the supply is very erratic.

As residents here don’t have water storage facilities, the unreliable water supply creates conflict, especially between women who spend considerable time collecting and transporting water. As one woman told us during a visit to Mamidipally in June 2015, “we live as neighbours, but due to this water shortage, we are forced to fight with each other. We do not have rules for appropriate water collection”.

In peri-urban Gurgaon, a rapidly expanding satellite of Delhi, water security and land rights issues interact. For many farmers, wastewater has become the only reliable source of water as they have lost their tube wells in the process of land acquisition for urban expansion and infrastructure. On top of this, many farmers’ land is located in depressions called jheel, which are prone to flooding. When this happened in 2010 and 2015, farmers lost their paddy crop and were unable to sow the next crop of wheat. The most vulnerable are tenants and sharecroppers who make an advance payment for using the land; in contrast to landowners, tenants receive no compensation when the land floods.

Traditionally, Kathmandu valley in Nepal was home to an intricate water supply system that dates back as far as 500 AD. Water from the surrounding hills was transported through open canals, irrigating the agricultural fields and recharging ponds at the edges of the cities. These recharging ponds in turn provided water to the cities by an intricate underground canal system and access points at stone ponds or ‘spouts’ called hitis. However, this system has largely disappeared as the area has urbanized. Many of the cities’ hitis have either dried up or become literally buried under the pillars of modern development.

Our early fieldwork in peri-urban Kathmandu Valley has yielded some surprises. After the recent earthquakes water has started flowing again in some locations where there previously was very little. This is probably caused by changes to the underground structure and flows, or unblocking of channels, as a result of land movements. Overall, however, the earthquake has brought new challenges to improving water security in the Kathmandu Valley during reconstruction, alongside urbanisation and climate change.

Left unchecked, ongoing urbanisation and a changing and increasingly erratic climate will continue to cause problems for peri-urban communities. Over the coming years, through our research on water security challenges, water conflicts and the policies that shape them in these South Asian cities, we aim to contribute to finding solutions to these problems and ultimately make peri-urban communities more water secure. We expect that a better understanding of water-related peri-urban conflicts caused by urbanisation and climate change will provide new perspectives on conflict resolution, the development of new institutional arrangements and forms of cooperation, and equitable and sustainable solutions to water problems.

For more information on the project ‘Climate Policy, Conflicts and Cooperation in Peri-Urban South Asia: Towards Resilient and Water Secure Communities’, see also

Image: water development, India, courtesy Asian Development Bank.


Occasionally, CDKN invites guest bloggers from around the world to share their views on climate compatible development. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of CDKN or its Alliance partners.

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