Story | 05 Apr, 2018

Obituary: Dr Dhrubjyoti Ghosh, pioneer of wetland conservation in Eastern India

Former Regional Chair for South Asia of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and a noted Kolkata wetlands warrior, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh expired suddenly on 16 February 2018. This was painful news and indeed a great loss for IUCN.


By Shalini Dhyani, Regional Chair for South Asia of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management 

content hero image

Photo: Courtesy of Dr Ghosh's family

During his last days he was admitted to hospital and left us after a brief period of illness. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh was in his mid-seventies. He is survived by his son and daughter-in-law who live abroad.

Dr Ghosh, a UN Global 500 laureate and the first Indian recipient of the prestigious Luc Hoffmann award, which he received during the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress, was an ardent follower of Nature-based Solutions and Ecosystem-based approaches. He was one of the last crusaders of his generation who devoted his entire life to conserving the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW).

The miracle of Kolkata’s wetlands is the result of this one man’s vision and struggle to save them. Kolkata is the only city in India without a sewage treatment plant. Dr Ghosh started his career joining the state government of West Bengal as a sanitation engineer, and later on became an ecologist and anthropologist. He was the first civil engineer to do a PhD in Ecology from Calcutta University. He initially planned to spend 10 years conserving the East Kolkata Wetlands, but eventually devoted his entire life to their conservation.

Dr Ghosh showed the entire world that wetlands could provide free-of-charge sewage works, fertile aquatic gardens and, most importantly, flood defenses. Presently, scientists are advocating the role of constructed wetlands as an energy-efficient sewage treatment method that uses Nature-based Solutions. Dr Ghosh was ahead of his time with his concepts and understanding. He always acknowledged Nature-based Solutions to urban problems, and had discussed this approach in his write-ups and books.

In his role as South Asia Chair of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, when Dr Piet Wit was Commission Chair,  and also as a member of the management board of RAMSAR, he made sure that the East Kolkata Wetlands are protected under the RAMSAR convention. He received immense motivation from Piet Wit, who inspired him to write many articles and a very interesting book, “The Trash Diggers”, based on his experiences on the ground, and directly related to Nature-based Solutions.

East Kolkata Wetlands represent the world’s only fully functional organic sewage management system. Dr Ghosh observed that sewage flowing in canals before reaching the ponds of the wetlands was actually being purified in 20 days by UV radiation from sunlight.

The East Kolkata Wetlands are the source of livelihoods for more than 50,000 people. The wetlands also provide benefits to people who are not directly dependent on them. 10,500 tonnes of fish delivered to Kolkata’s fish markets come from these wetlands. Fresh vegetables grown on Dhapa landfill on the banks of the East Kolkata Wetlands are reasonably priced in nearby markets.

Ecosystem benefits from the wetlands are immense and they are the key reason why Kolkata remains a very cheap city in India. You can still get cheap breakfast at two-thirds of the price you would pay in Delhi. But locals in Kolkata are also unaware of why their city is so cheap. We cannot have a stronger example of nature’s benefits and Nature-based Solutions to urban sewage problems than that demonstrated by the East Kolkata Wetlands and one man, Dr Dhrubjyoti Ghosh.

The East Kolkata Wetlands are presently under threat from developers. While he was alive, Dr Ghosh was leading the resistance. Even during his last few months he was struggling to bring global attention to conserving the wetlands, as the present Kolkata administration was planning to build flyovers and an amusement park that could have damaged the entire ecosystem of the wetlands. His continuous emails and thoughts in the Resilience thematic group were quite thought provoking.

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had said in 2017 that the movement to save the wetlands must carry on if Kolkata didn’t want to become another Chennai (Chennai was flooded because of the loss of its wetlands due to unplanned infrastructure development). Our governments are spending billions of dollars in contractor-heavy programmes to clean our rivers. Dr Ghosh’s life and work showed that the solutions are cheaper than we imagine, and throughout his life he supported the power of Nature through Nature-based Solutions. Solutions that lie with ordinary people, solutions that provide them with livelihoods, and that bring change to the society and the country.

All that is needed at present is politicians and officials to go out for a walk in their surroundings, observe nature, observe people. Climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction approaches are available within communities and nature. With an open mind, warm heart, and the commitment of sound scholarship these can be achieved.

Dr Ghosh had written many articles and books in English as well as in local languages. The legacy that he has left with us is immensely precious, not only for IUCN and the entire global conservationist community, but also for the 50,000 people who benefitted from the ecosystem goods and services of the East Kolkata Wetlands. It will be tough to fill the vacuum that he has left behind, but we have to follow his footsteps to keep the wetlands of East Kolkata alive and protected.