Turning Sewers into Sidewalks in Delhi
Delhi's nullahs are in the midst of a transformation. Photo via delhinullahs.org.

Delhi's nullahs are in the midst of a transformation. Photo via delhinullahs.org.

In Delhi, urban planner and architect Manit Rastogi has a plan to transform the city’s 350 kilometers of storm water drains – or nullahs – into a network of “landscaped passages for New Delhi’s pedestrians, cyclists and solar-powered rickshaws,” as this multimedia story on CNN described. As far back as 700 years ago, the 18 major passageways (and their 15,000 sub-branches) provided a drainage system for excess rainwater, but unfortunately, they are now mostly filled with untreated sewage waste.

Rastogi says his Delhi Nullahs revitalization project (www.delhinullahs.org) will provide multiple environmental, cultural and transport benefits, breathing new life in the city of 17 million people. It would improve public health and restore ancient aquifers by installing small-scale equipment to treat Delhi’s sewage at its source, relying on organic compounds like weeds and algae to clean the waste before it flows into the nullah network. It would boost activities related to everything from tourism to sports, as people explore the city’s various monuments, museums, theaters and other cultural and historical assets along the River Yamuna. And finally, it would ease the city’s traffic congestion by encouraging more commuters to bike and walk on paths along the waterways, which in turn, leads to increased physical activity, reduced air pollution, and other health and environmental advantages.

Rastogi’s sewers-into-sidewalks plan could truly transform the city, considering that pedestrians in Delhi account for 47 percent of road deaths, according to India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Cyclists, in the meantime, have been largely driven off the roads. In 1985, cyclists accounted for 60% of traffic flow in Delhi; today cycle traffic has dropped to 4% of all Delhi traffic. And Delhi adds 1,100 private vehicles to its congested roads every day.

Earlier this year, Rastogi wrote a call to action: “Delhi needs to wake up and take citizen action,” he said. “Its residents needs to demand and claim what is theirs. The national capital should be a worthy template for the rest of urban India.”

Paths along Delhi's expansive nullah network would provide safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians. Photo via morphogenesis.

Paths along Delhi's expansive nullah network could provide safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians. Photo via morphogenesis.

Although Rastogi has already pitched his plan to Delhi’s authorities, he is still waiting for unanimous approval. Rastogi has said in the past that his main barrier to success is not related to funding or technology. Instead, he said, “The main problem that a project like this faces is a multiplicity of agencies and the fact that our city has no CEO, the fact that there is no one person accountable for the city of Delhi.”

Recently, Rastogi found 69 other architects to support his mission, and the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi has asked Rastogi’s architecture and design firm, Morphogenesis, to launch a pilot project on a one-kilometer stretch of one of the nullahs. (The firm also indicated is it is prepared to organize water treatment facilities and other nullah projects for Rs 1,000 crore (US$214 million) over the next three years.) One kilometer down; 349 to go.

Delhi Nullah Project from morphogenesis on Vimeo.

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