A New Approach to Restoration of Mithi River, India

Mithi river (Mithi translates to ‘sweet’ in Hindi) is one of the four rivers flowing through the Mumbai city. It originates from the Vihar Lake and Powai Lake before meeting with the Arabian Sea after flowing through the residential and industrial sectors of Mumbai for a little less than 18 kilometers.

Back in 2015, it was stated by Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam that Mithi River was more of a sewage line than a river as 100 percent of the water flowing through it was sewage dumped by the establishments set around it.

The river is polluted from the source itself. While water from Vihar lake fulfills only 3 percent of the city’s demands, Powai lake is 8 times more polluted than the safe limit and was declared unfit to drink.

The river carries all these pollutants to the sea, the level of pollution is so severe that ICAR-CIFE has declared that Mahim creek, where the Mithi enters the sea, cannot sustain aquatic life.

Why is Mithi important to Mumbai?

Over the years, Mithi has been used by Mumbai as a large sewer. This “highly polluted” river is actually a saving grace for low-lying coastal cities like Mumbai. Mithi works as a natural storm drainage system which, if functional, would prevent flooding in the city. The deluge city experienced in 2005 that killed around a 1,000 citizens was because of the inefficient drainage during the heavy rainfall teamed with high tide.

The river is being choked by the solid waste and the narrowing of the river due to concrete boundaries on the banks greatly reduces the drainage capacity of the river.

The Mangrove grove and the Mahim creek is the nesting region for many migratory birds. The pollution and overall destruction of the Mithi river and the delicate estuarine and marine ecosystem is grave. The Mangrove patches present around the creek work as a ‘buffer zone’ and provide a natural defense against flooding but they have been seriously damaged over the years in the name of reclamation. They are also suffocated by plastic waste, toxic pollutants, and cement-concrete debris.

With the inefficient restoration carried out by the administration, another disaster in Mumbai seems inevitable.

Mithi River Pollution Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

The floods Mumbai experienced in June 2005 (News Nation)

Using Water Bodies as Trash-bins

In 2018, Earth5R took up the task of cleaning Powai lake, a major contributor to the Mithi river. After being declared unfit for domestic uses, Powai lake is used as a recreational spot and the water is used for non-domestic proposes like washing cattle. Every year tonnes of non-biodegradable waste are removed from Powai lake as the visitors and the locals dump trash like plastic wrappers and bottles, religious wastes which include both plastic and Thermocol, cigarette buds, liquor bottles, and whatnot, into the lake. 

During the clean-up project, the Earth5R team and volunteers were able to remove over a ton of plastic waste, most of which was later recycled.

River Plastic Pollution Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Plastic waste being collected by the Earth5R team (Earth5R)

This trend of dumping wastes into the water continues into the Mithi river as it flows down to the Arabian sea.

Around 80 to 110 metric tonnes of plastic waste, much of it is single-use plastic, is being dumped into Mumbai’s drains and water channels everyday. This accumulation of solid wastes including plastics, concrete, mud accompanied by the narrowing of the bank due to settlements has put the city of Mumbai in peril in the past and continues to be a problem during the monsoons.

Mithi River Plastic Pollution Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

A rag-picker working against a backdrop of plastic waste (The Hindu)

River Cleanup Plastic Pollution Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Domestic sewage and organic wastes (Earth5R)

Mumbai is the city with the highest population in India, at over 20 million, and more people keep coming into the city looking for opportunities. A major issue with an unplanned city with one of the highest population density is sanitation and sewage management.

Mumbai produces a staggering 2,371 million liters of sewage daily out of which only 2,016 million liters are redirected to Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs). With over 1.5 million tenements and 2 million people banked on either side of Mithi River with little to no sewage management, about 93 percent of the pollutants in the river are domestic waste.

According to a 2011 census report, the latrine system for 37.8 percent of Mumbai population was directly connected to the sewers, 28.6 percent had their system connected to the septic tanks, 21 percent of the city population used public latrines while the rest 7.7 percent resorted to open defecation.

The thoughtless discharge of domestic waste is an obvious threat to the health and well-being of the citizens. The level of fecal coliform bacteria, which are found in human and animal excreta, was 180 times more than the standard level. Moreover, drug-resistant E. coli bacteria which are found in the human gut was also detected in the river and Mahim creek.

Mithi River Pollution Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

An outfall discharging untreated wastes into the Mithi (Hindustan Times)

Industrial waste and heavy metals

Besides domestic sewage, around 7 percent of the waste comes from over 1500 industries, and more than 3000 illegal establishments around the river, most of which discharge their wastes directly into Mithi. Many of these industries are small scale including oil refining, textile and dye, tanneries, automobile washing centers, and such. The untreated discharge includes not only solid wastes like plastic and metals but also dissolved pollutants like toxic chemical wastes, cement and concrete, debris, and more.

The study from 2012 conducted to determine the level of heavy metals in Mithi found that many heavy metals had crossed the maximum permissible range. This means the water is not safe for any domestic or even industrial use. Not to mention the threat this possesses towards the people living around the river and for aquatic life.

Mithi River Restoration Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

The situation seems to be getting dire with every passing month and every passing year as seen by the study. (Semantic Scholar)

Others

It’s not only the plastics, chemicals, and sewage we have to worry about. The Mithi River is also plagued with biology pests which are hampering the ecosystem. The increase in the mineral content due to pollution leads to an increase in algal content, this is called Eutrophication and is used as an indication to check the level of the pollution. 

The Mithi river has shown high levels of eutrophication which doesn’t come as a surprise.

Another pest is Water Hyacinth – an invasive plant species – which blocks the river and is also a breeding spot for the mosquitoes.

Eutrophication and Water hyacinth are both known to result in oxygen depletion, killing the aquatic life in the process and increasing the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) which is one of the criteria in determining the quality of the water.

Mithi River Waste Pollution Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

The Water Hyacinth smothering the Mithi river (DNA India)

Role of the Administration 

The plight of Mithi has not gone unnoticed by the administration. After the Mumbai floods of 2005, Mithi River Development and Protection Authority (MRDPA) was formed to restore Mithi river and rehabilitate people living on its bank. After spending over 12 billion rupees in the beautification and restoration, the state of the river has hardly changed.

Many schemes and plans were put into play since then.

In 2013, the Nation Green Tribunal had asked for shut down of the 239 industries which were polluting the river. In 2015, 100 of these industrial units were issued closure notices by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and by 2018, electricity and water supply was disconnected for 200 industrial units which were operating around Mithi. Over the past few years at least 700 other small-scale industries have also been shut to curb the increasing levels of effluents entering the river.

Attempt made in 2018

The MPCB, in 2018, made an attempt at decentralizing the STP by asking the housing societies along the river to set up Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) on their premises to reduce the amount of domestic wastes being discharged directly into the river.

The plan for the development and up-gradation of the STPs has long been delayed and is riddled with problems. 

2019 sewage treatment plants

In June 2019, State Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam announced the plan of building sewer lines and sewage treatment plants along the river bank which is estimated to cost more than 21 billion rupees. The plan is to stop the sewage pollution of the Mithi and to restore the river by the end of two years.

But even then, the task of curtailing domestic pollution isn’t going to be easy.

With Mumbai’s ever-increasing population, 60 percent of which is living in temporary establishments and shanties without access to proper sewage lines, the proposed Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) would not be able to cover the entire city’s needs. 

Mithi River Pollution Recycle Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

A report on pollution in Mithi river (Maharashtra Pollution Control Board)

Where has the Administration failed?

As many would wonder why is this river in a pitiful state even after spending billions on its restoration. This is because of the lack of planning and management of the administration.

The MRDPA, since its formation in 2005 after the Mumbai floods, has held only six meetings with the last meeting held in 2010. With the inactivity shown by this independent authority and the work moving at a snail’s pace, with every passing year and every passing monsoon the progress comes back to square one. 

This is because over time, the level of encroachment changes and so does the river pattern. The outdated data on the Mithi is hardly of any use while planning out the new schemes and a new study will have to be done to update the state of Mithi.

Short-term solution that is not sustainable

An astounding 12 billion rupees were spent in widening and deepening the river to allow more flow and another 6 billion rupees are to be used for widening of the five bridges going over the river. The plans designed by the administration are anything but sustainable and these actions will provide only short-term relief.

No concrete solution for bringing Mithi back from its sewer-like state is in place. The pollution and exploitation will keep increasing with the increase in unplanned urbanization around the river. There is an urgent need to focus on the root of the problem instead of spending billions of taxpayer’s money on half-hearted revival efforts made every year just before the monsoons.

It is a sad situation that the thriving river representing a vast, beautiful ecosystem is reduced to a sewer. The pollution, the stench and the encroachment has long ruined the ecosystem and the majesty of Mithi. The problems it possesses to the life and livelihood of the people is a red flag that needs urgent intervention.

What have Citizens done?

There are many independent groups and many more volunteers who have come together now and again in an attempt to clean Mithi.

  • Afroz Shah – a lawyer and Activist is leading a group of volunteers to clean Mithi river. While Dawoodi Bohra Community is also actively involved in helping with clean up and educating the locals.
  • Malhar Kalambe – the founder of the clean-up initiative, Beach Please – and his team has managed to collect a staggering 3800 tonnes of trash from the Mithi river since they began working on Mithi in 2018.
  • In June 2019, the NGO Project Mumbai with Beach Please organized a 3-day campaign “Jallosh-Clean Coasts” to clean-up the beaches and rivers of Mumbai. Many organizations, corporates and independent volunteers joined in to clean-up and collect more than 16 tonnes of trash from various locations around Mumbai.

Other independent communities and groups, with people young and old, from students to retired professionals, are all joining hands in helping clean the Mithi.

Is the efforts done enough? 

After all that has been done by citizens, it is still not enough. More wastes keep being added into the river every single day. Better planning and more efforts are needed to combat this issue but many people are hesitant to volunteer for Mithi clean-up because of the noxious state the river is in while the administration is focusing on short-term solutions.

A new circular economy based model for Mithi River restoration.

Earth5R works with citizens to tackle sustainability issues that affect their local ecosystem. In the past, Earth5R has led clean-up drives along the Mithi River and also at Powai lake for 13 weeks and most of the collected plastic waste was recycled to make benches.

“Better planning and more efforts are needed to combat this issue but many people are hesitant to volunteer for Mithi clean-up because of the noxious state the river is in while the administration is focusing on short-term solutions.”

With our focus being on circular economy and sustainable planning, we have directed the clean-up in a way to make sure the plastic wastes collected do not end up in the landfill but get back into the circulation to generate income for the locals.

River Cleanup Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Together the citizens with the local recyclers and ragpickers can make a difference (Earth5R)

Earth5R is going to be even more actively involved in cleaning Mithi in the coming time.

Huhtamäki Oyj – the food packaging company based in Finland  has funded EUR 0.6 million to clean the plastic wastes of the Mithi River. The funding has been made to a consortium made up of Earth5R with United Nations Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL), VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, and RiverRecycle, a Finnish cleantech start-up.

The goal is to clean the Mithi with innovative tools while raising awareness on waste management and building a circular economy and livelihood based model to restore the Mithi River. 

Project activities planned by Earth5R

Under this project Earth5R team will conduct various waste management trainings for the residential buildings, slums and industries along the catchment of Mithi River. 

Earth5R team will also conduct a large-scale cleanup, waste segregation, and recycling program in the Mithi River area. 

The River will be mapped with the help of drones pre and post project and the data will be analysed to develop further solutions. Children and citizens in various Colleges, Schools, Offices of Mumbai will be mobilised for a solution based approach to solve the Mithi River plastic pollution problem.

This partnership is one step forward towards sustainable restoration of the Mithi river.

There is still hope in reviving Mithi. This is possible by combined efforts made by the administration and the citizens.

What can the people do?

Understanding and educating the people dwelling around the Powai lake and along Mithi is of utmost importance as the habit and carelessness associated with littering is a socio-economic problem. This continuous effort in involving the residents with the clean-up has brought about a behavioural change in the community. The people are learning to respect and maintain the river which helps in attaining a level of sustainability as the people stop littering and stop the others who litter.

Guiding the people to use cleaning as an opportunity to generate income through a circular economy is not only important for the people, but also for the river.

Citizens are also responsible

Tonnes and tonnes of trash has been collected from Mithi and much is still left to be collected. In the end, it all seems to become the responsibility of the citizens to clean-up the Mithi and rightly so.

Even though the administration is supposed to take the responsibility of planning and providing necessary services, the pollution and trash are generated by the people and it comes down to the behaviour and understanding of the crowd to stop further degradation of Mithi.

How can the administration help?

The biggest holdback is the large population density around the banks of Mithi. As important as rehabilitation is, the fact that the population belongs to a poor socio-economic background can’t be ignored. Instead of taking this as a separate problem, this could be used as an opportunity to engage people in a circular economy and develop a sustainable plan against pollution.

  • Administration support is needed in protecting the river and the people. The administration is expected to work timely and urgently in developing STPs to direct the wastewaters away from the river while providing a proper waste disposal system for the residents and industries along Mithi.
  • A strict regulation against the encroachment of the banks is also necessary as an extension to developing a planned settlement for the people to be rehabilitated. Besides involving the citizens in restoration, raising questions against the degradation of the river is of equal importance as, for years, the administration has turned a blind eye towards the increasing number of the illegal establishments along the Mithi.

It’s time to act now 

Our growing population and the ever-growing needs cannot afford to lose our freshwater sources to pollution. Not only have we proved ourselves to be inefficient when it comes to sustainably using our resources, we have also failed in conserving our marvelous estuarine ecosystem, but the increasing demand and deteriorating state of Mithi and other freshwater bodies is a wake up we all need. 

ABOUT EARTH5R

Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.

Earth5R is conducting large-scale online training on COVID 19 Coronavirus prevention, response, management, and self-sustainability. These trainings are conducted on digital platforms in regional languages across India and other countries.

Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.

-Reported by Riya Dani

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