Hyderabad: A showcase of urban biodiversity

India has experienced double-digit growth over the past decade, an achievement that has changed the face of the country for good. But development has come at a cost, with industry and housing increasingly encroaching on valuable pastures, forests and wetlands. During the recent UN biodiversity talks in Hyderabad, the International Union for Conservation of Nature gave journalists the opportunity to see how biodiversity can thrive in the middle of a bustling metropolis.

By Tierney Smith
RTCC in Hyderabad

The plants are specifically chosen for benefits to urban environments

Nowhere are the two faces of Hyderabad more apparent than driving on the city’s ring road.

Running down the centre of the busy road is what is called a ‘Greenway’ – a lane of plants, trees and shrubs. In the background, the billowing smoke from the city’s power stations decorates the skyline.

By 2030 it is predicted that 60% of India’s population could live in cities. This will mean more people, more industry and more traffic.

In 2008 it was estimated that 600 new vehicles were coming on the roads every day in Hyderabad. Earlier this year, 20,000 new auto-rickshaws were also allowed onto the city’s roads, taking the total number to 97,357.

Urban biodiversity and urban forestry can play a vital role in regulating a city’s environment – while also improving the social well-being of residents.

Trees absorb carbon, air pollution and dust. A recent report by the University of Birmingham in the UK revealed that walls of vegetation in cities can cut pollution by as much as 30%.

Urban forestry can also help reduce noise pollution – absorbing and deflecting sounds. Splitting the roads, Hyderabad’s greenways shield drivers from the headlights of on coming vehicles.

They run for 9km along the main Hyderabad carriageways, while underneath raised roadways, another 11.5km of shrubbery can be found. The plants used are chosen for their ability to absorb the highest amount of dust and air pollution.

The greenways are just one of several biodiversity projects covering the whole of Hyderabad. In the centre of the city, parks are dotted in between buildings offering an escape from the dust and the debris of a growing city.

Urban forests

On the outskirts of the city, growing pockets of forestry are pushing back against  expanding urbanisation.

One of the forests, almost 30,000 hectares of woodland, sits behind a large concrete wall. I was told this is to protect the land  from illegal loggers and encroaching urban sprawl.

Like much of the urban biodiversity in the city, this site – the Gandiguda Forest Block – is run by the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA).

The HMDA say since the project’s birth in 2000 around 5% of the city has been turned into urban forests. India has a target to increase forests by 33% and the authority say the city’s own target to achieve this is 25%.

P. Rajender Reddy, Director of Urban Forestry at the HMDA, showed us round the site and explained that inside the walled reserve, the 4,000 hectares of trees are all native to India, and many native to Andhra Pradesh. They are chosen for their fast growing nature.

The trees are seeded off-site, in a nursery run by women’s groups from  villages around Hyderabad. Once they are around 9 feet  they are transported to the forest.

The trees are transported to the walled forests after around 18 months in the nursery

“The forests have multiple benefits,”  said Reddy. “We have brought women’s groups together, they are all put into groups near their dwellings so they do not have to travel. They act as the lungs of our city and provide important ecosystem services.”

One tree species, called terminalia bellerica, is a great source of fruit for wild animals.

Just five years old, there are already signs of the wildlife coming back to what was degraded scrubland. Butterflies flutter between the trees, and the sound of birds fills the area. Bird, reptiles, porcupines and even wild boar have been spotted nearby.

The forest also aims to protect threatened species of trees. The Pterocarpus santalinus – more commonly known as red sandalwood – is on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species following over exploitation for its valuable timber.

A significant amount of water is needed for such vast woodland. In a region where intense rain followed by extreme dryness, getting the balance can be difficult. When they were preparing the ground, the HMDS dug trenches amongst the trees. They store the water in the rainy season to be used during dry periods.

Women’s groups

Women living around Hyderabad city are given a new source of income through growing the forest seedlings

From the forest we travelled to the Shamahabad Nursery where we were greeted by a group of the women who grow the trees and plants.

The women were originally given 1000 seedlings, which they grew on their own land. They were paid around 1000 rupees per month for the work.

“Most of the women in this area are restricted to their own households, they do not have their own form of income,” said Sumil Kumar Gupta, Member Environment, HMDA. “This project aims to give them jobs and then they can bring more money to the family and there is even the opportunity to them to build up their own businesses.”

As we walked around the nursery – lines and lines of trees, dozens of species, all in different stages of growth – the women told us their stories.

One talked of the bangle and sari shop she has been able to set up, selling products out of her home, with the money from her extra income. If and when the nursery work ends, she hopes to still have an income through this new business.

Another women talked of the project bringing women, who are often isolated in their own homes, together, and creating a sense of community. A third explained how she is now able to send her grandchildren to school.

“It is creating green jobs in urban areas,” said J S Rawat, Programme Manager at IUCN India.

City blueprint

The urban biodiversity of Hyderabad offers a great example of how greenery can be brought back into urban areas. Many of the city’s forests have taken previous wasteland and turned it into bustling natural habitat.

It also provides an example of how new and emerging cities could incorporate greenery into their development plans.

Hyderabad is a rapidly expanding city. Everywhere you turn a building site is advertising the imminent arrival of a new hotel, office complex or block of flats. With more and more people flocking to urban areas, this rapid growth is not going to slow anytime soon.

Dust and pollution fill the air. Travelling along the city’s road you can smell and feel it.

Hyderabad’s urban biodiversity will play a huge role in regulating this while at the same time offering a more welcoming environment for the city’s residents. Along the lakeside sit public gardens and all of the roads are lined with trees and shrubs.

Protecting these natural pockets in the years to come will be vital for the city. They will offer vital services – regulating heat and protecting the city from flash floods.

One of the biggest benefits of the project was the creation of green jobs for neglected section of society. The women’s groups involved in the project seemed genuinely excited by the opportunities which have opened up to them.

And while it may have been even more positive if these women had some form of rights to the forest land in the city, the new businesses they have been able to set up have hopefully secured their future even after the nurseries are no longer needed.

With cities growing all across the country – and new ones likely to develop in the future – Hyderabad’s plan can offer a blueprint for others to follow. In the city itself, work will continue in coming years turn 5% of forest cover into 25%.

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