Opinion

Urbanisation and the threat to Biodiversity

Master of International Relations candidate Sulagna Basu, discusses how the rapid urbanisation of cities in India and China is impacting coastal wetlands and causing habitat fragmentation for native animals. Sulagna explains that although the link between urbanisation and the threat to biodiversity is undeniable, the complications of urbanisation in developing countries have not been adequately studied.

An elephant crossing the railway track in Palakkad, in the greater Coimbatore region. By K. Sudhi, May 24, 2018. Sourced via The Hindu.

The continuous rise in global population over the next few decades is a well-documented fact (United Nations, 2004). According to figures reported by the United Nations, the world population is projected to be close to approximately 10 billion (United Nations, 2017) by 2050. A vast majority of this is concentrated in urban regions, with the percentage of urban population steadily rising in developing countries, leading to changes in land use patterns, increasing demands on natural resources, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Unsurprisingly, rapid urbanisation has posed serious challenges to maintaining a balance between sustainable development and ecological preservation. Nowhere is this cost of urbanisation more evident than in the rapidly growing cities of India and China, where the associated issues of waste management and pollution-related smog are widely studied and well represented in the media. As a result, urbanisation has become almost synonymous with a deterioration of air quality and overall challenges to quality of life in urban areas. But perhaps, an equally critical aspect of rapid and sometimes uncontrolled urbanisation is the threat to biodiversity in the highly urbanised regions and surrounding land areas (Pauchard et al., 2006).

Evans (2011) explains that habitat loss occurs when the natural ecosystem is no longer able to support native species, and in the context of urbanisation, this leads to habitat fragmentation, the process by which large continuous areas of a species’ natural habitat are broken down into smaller isolated units (Liu et al., 2016). Anthropogenic activities such as urbanisation can lead to significant fragmentation in a relatively short span of time.

In India, several cities and towns lie in biodiversity ‘hotspots’ (Cincotta et al., 2000), making them particularly vulnerable to potential habitat fragmentation concomitant with rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the region. One such example is Coimbatore, the second largest city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is surrounded by one of the world’s ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats. Coimbatore is the 15th largest urban agglomeration of India according to the country’s 2011 Census (Census of India, 2011).

The urban growth of the city has had grave implications for the environment and local biodiversity, in particular, the large mammals including elephants in the surrounding forests of the Western Ghats. These forests are home to several important elephant corridors – narrow strips of land that facilitate the movement of these mammals across several habitat patches. The large-scale clearance and development of forest land to facilitate infrastructure projects to support the urban expansion of the city and neighboring towns has led to the fragmentation of contiguous forest areas. Consequently, there have been several instances of elephants stranded on highways and railway tracks (see featured image), making them vulnerable to accidents. An interference to the free movement of the elephants has also led to a rise in incidents of human-wildlife conflicts. According to several news reports, there have been over 1,000 human fatalities (Delhi, 2017) resulting from human-animal conflicts involving elephants, between 2014 and 2017, from across India. These alarming figures have highlighted the urgent need for sustainable conservation efforts and specifically, the need to strengthen the elephant corridors to minimize the detrimental repercussions of habitat fragmentation.

The Indian government’s Department of Forestry has adopted various mitigating measures including the allocation of funds towards Project Kaliru (The Hindu, 2018), a targeted initiative to manage the human-animal conflicts in the Coimbatore district but the long-term success of these schemes remains to be seen.

Satellite images show expansion of the landfill area at Tiaozini mudflats between 2000 and 2017. Image sourced from a media release by Greenpeace East Asia (2017) on Jiangsu’s Vanishing Wetlands.

In China, rapid urbanisation, especially along the coast, increasingly threatens coastal wetlands where large areas have been lost to land reclamations to keep up with the demands of development (see satellite image above). According to a report by Greenpeace East Asia (2017), a total of 246,900 hectares of marine wetlands will be reclaimed between 2011 and 2020. This has left migratory birds, a natural inhabitant of the wetlands, especially vulnerable with several species facing possible extinction.

Whilst the Chinese government has previously implemented various nature reserves, most of these do not include areas inhabited by endangered birds leaving them largely unprotected (Roxburgh, 2018). However, increasing public awareness and global prominence of the issue has seen renewed commitments with China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) announcing new regulations (Xinhua, 2018) restricting the rising development of the wetlands by only approving projects related to national defense or developed in the interest of public welfare, as well as a crackdown on all existing unauthorised projects. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, further concerted efforts and substantial resources will be required to gain significant traction towards the restoration of this ecosystem.

Although the link between urbanisation and the threat to biodiversity is undeniable, the complications of urbanisation in developing countries have not been adequately studied. Further research could help us understand the nuanced implications of the inevitable rise in urbanisation in various parts of the world. This would undoubtedly help in conservation efforts and bolster a more sustainable model of development.

References 

The United Nations on World Population in 2300. (2004). Population and Development Review, 30(1), 181-187.
United Nations. (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division,  Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP/248.
Pauchard, A., Aguayo, M., Peña, E., & Urrutia, R. (2006). Multiple effects of urbanization on the biodiversity of developing countries: The case of a fast-growing metropolitan area (Concepción, Chile). Biological Conservation, 127(3), 272-281.
Liu, Z., He, C., & Wu, J. (2016). The Relationship between Habitat Loss and Fragmentation during Urbanization: An Empirical Evaluation from 16 World Cities. PLoS ONE, 11(4), e0154613. Access here.
Cincotta, R. P.,  Wisnewski, J., and Engelman, R. (2000). Human population in the biodiversity hotspots. Nature (404), 990–92.
Evans, M. (2011, May 10). Habitat Loss and Degradation. Earth Times [website]. Retrieved April 11, 2018. Access here.
The Government of India. Census of India, 2011. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. Access here.
Delhi, A. P. (2017). More than 1,000 people killed in India as human and wildlife habitats collide. The Guardian Australia (August 01, 2017). Retrieved March 30, 2018. Access here.
The Hindu. (2018). “Slew of measures to tackle human-animal conflicts.” The Hindu [news paper] (March 06, 2018). Retrieved March 30, 2018. Access here.
Greenpeace East Asia. (2017). Jiangsu’s Vanishing  Wetlands [media briefing] (December 12, 2014). Retrieved March 30, 2018. Access here.
Roxburgh, Helen. (2018). Protecting birds in an urbanized China. China Dialogue (n.d). Retrieved March 30, 2018. Access here.
Xinhua Net. (2018). China Focus: China introduces toughest ever regulation on land reclamation. Xinhua Net [website] (January 01, 2018). Retrieved March 30, 2018. Access here.


Sulagna Basu is a postgraduate student of International Relations with an interest in investigating the substantive issues that lie at the intersection of technology, security studies and world politics. Prior to commencing her studies, she has completed a Master of Science degree in Information and Computer Science from the University of California, Irvine and subsequently worked for several years in the technology sector at various multinational corporations.

This blog is a part of SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.