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Watch: Mumbai’s Mithi River Problem, Explained

According to a study, the Mithi was made up of 100% sewage. How did we get there? How do we fix it?

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Explainers
6 min read
Watch: Mumbai’s Mithi River Problem, Explained
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Snapshot

In 2015, a study revealed that Mumbai’s Mithi river was made up of 100% sewage and no clean water.

We are talking about one of India’s oldest river systems, which until the 80s was good for a swim on a sunny day. Since then, it has been polluted, moulded and abused into a narrow drain. A drain which floods at least on one day every year, leaving 22 million people in Mumbai knee-deep in toxic waste.

Every year, the government throws money at the problem with half-hearted attempts at cleaning the river just before it rains, but...that’s just a band-aid solution.

How did we really get here? More importantly, can we salvage it?


Video Editor: Veeru Krishan Mohan
Producer: Divya Talwar
Mumbai Aerial Shot Courtesy: BrainWing India

Watch: Mumbai’s Mithi River Problem, Explained

  1. 1. What is the Extent of Mithi's Damage & Its Consequences?

    Mumbai is essentially an odd-looking peninsula jutting out into the Arabian sea.

    The 18-km long Mithi cuts across it, originating in the North-East, flows through the residential and industrial areas like Powai, BKC and Asia’s largest slum Dharavi, before emptying into the sea in the west.

    It’s a seasonal river which means it swells up when it rains. It has historically also served as a stormwater drain, a part of the island’s natural drainage come rainfall. Mangroves on both sides act as a natural flood barrier and are a vital part of the river ecosystem.

    In the 1980s, only eight million called Mumbai home. But in 40 years, the population has increased three-fold.

    The highest number of land reclamations have happened in the last 40 years in the island’s 300-year-long history of reclamations. A report showed that between 1966 and 2005, there has been almost 50% reduction in river width and 70% decrease in open spaces and mangroves around it.

    This has led to an overall decrease in the ground’s ability to absorb rainwater and mangrove cover, increasing the risk of flooding. So ironically, the ecosystem supposed to be the main carrier for Mumbai’s stormwater into the sea to prevent flooding has become the major cause for it.

    And the worst has already happened once. On 25 July 2005, heavy rainfall and high tide coincided and Mithi couldn’t weather it. It flooded, bringing Mumbai to a standstill.

    More than 900 people died, lakhs of people were stranded, all forms of transport came to a complete halt and entire areas around the Mithi were submerged. Since it was only sewage that overflowed, Mumbai’s 100-year-old leaking water pipelines were also contaminated.

    The total damage incurred on that day alone was around Rs 550 crores.

    Expand
  2. 2. Solution One: What is a 'Zone of No Tolerance'?

    The most affected were the slum dwellers who ironically also pollute the river the most since it is their only source of water. After all, 70% of Mithi’s embankments are covered in lakhs of slums. So, all the domestic waste from here, from kitchen to bathroom and even raw human waste from rampant open defecation, simply joins the river.

    Even more damage has been caused by the highly polluting small-scale industries that flourish both legally and illegally alongside the slums, without proper toxic waste disposal systems.

    So, to successfully reclaim the Mithi, the problem at the very source needs to be solved. Firstly, a “zone of no tolerance” needs to be created.

    This means everything and everyone who comes within that zone right now needs to be removed and rehabilitated elsewhere.

    And, it’s not just the slums. Take for instance, Mumbai airport.

    To facilitate the airport’s renovation, the Mithi river was forced to bend at 90 degree angles four times by building walls on both sides, leaving no space for any river banks. The airport was then extended over the reclaimed land. The glitzy business hub of Bandra Kurla Complex which is built over 220 hectares of land reclaimed from the Mithi, fundamentally changed its course and shape.

    Expand
  3. 3. Solution Two: Why is Pollution Control Important?

    Apart from creating this forbidden “zone”, pollution control is the next big problem to tackle.

    Gopal Zaveri, co founder of River March says:

    The main problem is of solid waste which has plastic and debris. Now government has came up with plastic ban and may be if implementation is proper then the problem of plastics clogging the inlets and outlets of the river can be solved. Connecting sewer lines on both sides of the river to decentralised sewage treatment plant is also not impossible.

    He further said that industries along the river release toxic chemical waste without treating it, which only the state can curb through unforgiving regulations. The same goes for pollution due to sewage lines and debris.

    Zaveri says, “Connecting both sewer lines by the side of the river to decentralised sewage treatment plants is not impossible. We also demand debris management systems. In Mumbai, we have 5,000 trucks of debris unloading in the river everyday. They need to stop this.”

    This step is crucial. Even if it doesn’t flood, the Mithi in its current state is simply toxic.

    And yet, the Mithi is used by lakhs of slum-dwellers to wash, clean utensils and bathe. It’s no wonder that instances of diseases and infections are more prevalent here, life expectancy is low and infant mortality rate is high.

    Expand
  4. 4. Solution Three: Why is Slum Redevelopment So Controversial?

    This brings us to the next and most controversial solution – slum redevelopment.

    Since the low-lying slums and adjacent industries are the major source of pollution and also most vulnerable in case of a flood and to diseases, you’d think slum redevelopment would be on the top of politicians’ minds.

    Not really. This is where the political angle of fixing the Mithi comes in.

    For the politicians, slum dwellers form huge, easily influenced vote banks. And these vote banks don’t care much for being displaced to an equally bad or usually, worse or far-off location for some “greater good”.

    What the city needs is scientifically built mass-housing projects specially for the purpose of housing these slum-dwellers. These need to be near their sources of livelihoods, but away from the river, with functional waste disposal and sewage treatment systems and access to clean water and bathrooms.

    Expand
  5. 5. Solution Four: How is Corruption Hindering Mithi's Rejuvenation?

    Completely doing away with political and bureaucratic corruption then is the next step in salvaging the Mithi.

    Both the government and municipal agencies have developed a reputation of being corrupt, inefficient and unfriendly. In some areas the state has simply walled the river cutting off river banks and mangroves in a lame attempt to stop the flood water, while in other areas it is still way behind schedule in setting up storm water pumping stations and sewage treatment plants.

    The state still insists they’re making progress on the Rs 1,800 crore project that began after 2005, to transform the Mithi. The deadline to complete this already 13-year-long overhaul was a few years ago. But in June 2018, the MRDPA chief SC Deshpande said they can rejuvenate the river in another two years.

    Even the Dharavi redevelopment project is yet to begin decisively, due to endless reasons that state keep citing every time.

    Execution aside, there are also some fundamental problems with the way the Mithi river rejuvenation project has been planned.

    Because, believe it or not, the entire multi-crore overhaul has been planned with no mention of pollution control, slum rehabilitation, or the fourth solution: construction of a riverfront to make the project self-sustainable.

    Think of a nature park along both sides of the river, complete with bird sanctuaries, open air theatres, cycling and walking paths, rain shelters, public bathrooms and even our very Opera house...because why not?

    Expand
  6. 6. Are There Any Other River Rejuvenation Models Mumbai Can Replicate?

    The city has no shortage of model river redevelopment projects for inspiration that have used similar techniques.

    The Cheonggyecheon river in Seoul and the Besos in Barcelona both successfully turned choked rivers worse than the Mithi into tourist landmarks. In Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati is undergoing a similar transformation, or the Namami Ganga project where the state adopted a Public-Private-Partnership model. Private companies were invited to set up and maintain sewage treatment plants along the Ganga.

    Moral of the story is: It looks bad. It is bad. But it can still be fixed. The technology exists, the know-how exists, the money is earmarked. It’s just going to take iron-strong political and administrative will and relentless citizen cooperation.

    Because nothing changes if nothing’s done about it.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What is the Extent of Mithi's Damage & Its Consequences?

Mumbai is essentially an odd-looking peninsula jutting out into the Arabian sea.

The 18-km long Mithi cuts across it, originating in the North-East, flows through the residential and industrial areas like Powai, BKC and Asia’s largest slum Dharavi, before emptying into the sea in the west.

It’s a seasonal river which means it swells up when it rains. It has historically also served as a stormwater drain, a part of the island’s natural drainage come rainfall. Mangroves on both sides act as a natural flood barrier and are a vital part of the river ecosystem.

In the 1980s, only eight million called Mumbai home. But in 40 years, the population has increased three-fold.

The highest number of land reclamations have happened in the last 40 years in the island’s 300-year-long history of reclamations. A report showed that between 1966 and 2005, there has been almost 50% reduction in river width and 70% decrease in open spaces and mangroves around it.

This has led to an overall decrease in the ground’s ability to absorb rainwater and mangrove cover, increasing the risk of flooding. So ironically, the ecosystem supposed to be the main carrier for Mumbai’s stormwater into the sea to prevent flooding has become the major cause for it.

And the worst has already happened once. On 25 July 2005, heavy rainfall and high tide coincided and Mithi couldn’t weather it. It flooded, bringing Mumbai to a standstill.

More than 900 people died, lakhs of people were stranded, all forms of transport came to a complete halt and entire areas around the Mithi were submerged. Since it was only sewage that overflowed, Mumbai’s 100-year-old leaking water pipelines were also contaminated.

The total damage incurred on that day alone was around Rs 550 crores.

ADVERTISEMENT

Solution One: What is a 'Zone of No Tolerance'?

The most affected were the slum dwellers who ironically also pollute the river the most since it is their only source of water. After all, 70% of Mithi’s embankments are covered in lakhs of slums. So, all the domestic waste from here, from kitchen to bathroom and even raw human waste from rampant open defecation, simply joins the river.

Even more damage has been caused by the highly polluting small-scale industries that flourish both legally and illegally alongside the slums, without proper toxic waste disposal systems.

So, to successfully reclaim the Mithi, the problem at the very source needs to be solved. Firstly, a “zone of no tolerance” needs to be created.

This means everything and everyone who comes within that zone right now needs to be removed and rehabilitated elsewhere.

And, it’s not just the slums. Take for instance, Mumbai airport.

To facilitate the airport’s renovation, the Mithi river was forced to bend at 90 degree angles four times by building walls on both sides, leaving no space for any river banks. The airport was then extended over the reclaimed land. The glitzy business hub of Bandra Kurla Complex which is built over 220 hectares of land reclaimed from the Mithi, fundamentally changed its course and shape.

ADVERTISEMENT

Solution Two: Why is Pollution Control Important?

Apart from creating this forbidden “zone”, pollution control is the next big problem to tackle.

Gopal Zaveri, co founder of River March says:

The main problem is of solid waste which has plastic and debris. Now government has came up with plastic ban and may be if implementation is proper then the problem of plastics clogging the inlets and outlets of the river can be solved. Connecting sewer lines on both sides of the river to decentralised sewage treatment plant is also not impossible.

He further said that industries along the river release toxic chemical waste without treating it, which only the state can curb through unforgiving regulations. The same goes for pollution due to sewage lines and debris.

Zaveri says, “Connecting both sewer lines by the side of the river to decentralised sewage treatment plants is not impossible. We also demand debris management systems. In Mumbai, we have 5,000 trucks of debris unloading in the river everyday. They need to stop this.”

This step is crucial. Even if it doesn’t flood, the Mithi in its current state is simply toxic.

And yet, the Mithi is used by lakhs of slum-dwellers to wash, clean utensils and bathe. It’s no wonder that instances of diseases and infections are more prevalent here, life expectancy is low and infant mortality rate is high.

ADVERTISEMENT

Solution Three: Why is Slum Redevelopment So Controversial?

This brings us to the next and most controversial solution – slum redevelopment.

Since the low-lying slums and adjacent industries are the major source of pollution and also most vulnerable in case of a flood and to diseases, you’d think slum redevelopment would be on the top of politicians’ minds.

Not really. This is where the political angle of fixing the Mithi comes in.

For the politicians, slum dwellers form huge, easily influenced vote banks. And these vote banks don’t care much for being displaced to an equally bad or usually, worse or far-off location for some “greater good”.

What the city needs is scientifically built mass-housing projects specially for the purpose of housing these slum-dwellers. These need to be near their sources of livelihoods, but away from the river, with functional waste disposal and sewage treatment systems and access to clean water and bathrooms.

ADVERTISEMENT

Solution Four: How is Corruption Hindering Mithi's Rejuvenation?

Completely doing away with political and bureaucratic corruption then is the next step in salvaging the Mithi.

Both the government and municipal agencies have developed a reputation of being corrupt, inefficient and unfriendly. In some areas the state has simply walled the river cutting off river banks and mangroves in a lame attempt to stop the flood water, while in other areas it is still way behind schedule in setting up storm water pumping stations and sewage treatment plants.

The state still insists they’re making progress on the Rs 1,800 crore project that began after 2005, to transform the Mithi. The deadline to complete this already 13-year-long overhaul was a few years ago. But in June 2018, the MRDPA chief SC Deshpande said they can rejuvenate the river in another two years.

Even the Dharavi redevelopment project is yet to begin decisively, due to endless reasons that state keep citing every time.

Execution aside, there are also some fundamental problems with the way the Mithi river rejuvenation project has been planned.

Because, believe it or not, the entire multi-crore overhaul has been planned with no mention of pollution control, slum rehabilitation, or the fourth solution: construction of a riverfront to make the project self-sustainable.

Think of a nature park along both sides of the river, complete with bird sanctuaries, open air theatres, cycling and walking paths, rain shelters, public bathrooms and even our very Opera house...because why not?

ADVERTISEMENT

Are There Any Other River Rejuvenation Models Mumbai Can Replicate?

The city has no shortage of model river redevelopment projects for inspiration that have used similar techniques.

The Cheonggyecheon river in Seoul and the Besos in Barcelona both successfully turned choked rivers worse than the Mithi into tourist landmarks. In Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati is undergoing a similar transformation, or the Namami Ganga project where the state adopted a Public-Private-Partnership model. Private companies were invited to set up and maintain sewage treatment plants along the Ganga.

Moral of the story is: It looks bad. It is bad. But it can still be fixed. The technology exists, the know-how exists, the money is earmarked. It’s just going to take iron-strong political and administrative will and relentless citizen cooperation.

Because nothing changes if nothing’s done about it.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  Mumbai   BMC   Water Pollution 

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