Photo essay: A look at urban settlements along the Mithi river

Essay on the urban settlements and constructions along the Mithi river which affect the health and flood resilience of the river.

On his 17 km walk along the Mithi, Abhijit Waghre observed the river’s water level, its flood protection infrastructure, and associated limitations in basic sanitation services.

Read more: Walking along the 17-km long Mithi river: A look at the riverine ecosystem

Most of Mumbai’s stormwater systems depend on the Mithi river for drainage to the sea. However, systemic challenges abound, with settlements abutting the river, limiting the effectiveness of this approach during the problematic monsoon months. When high tides and heavy rainfall coincide, the city’s stormwater flow to the river gets backed up resulting in Mumbai’s annual flooding woes.

household drain connected to the stormwater drain at Gautam Nagar
Household wastewater outlet enters a stormwater drain at Gautam Nagar. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

One such systemic challenge is the pressure on the capacity of the river. Typically, stormwater drains are meant to remain dry during the summer months due to no rainfall. The presence of water in stormwater drains during summer indicates inflow of sewage and wastewater which would eventually pollute the river. At Gautam Nagar, the drain connected to a stormwater outlet which flows to the river is observed carrying both solid waste and wastewater to the river.

Water discharged into the Mithi river from Gautam Nagar
Discharging solid waste and wastewater into the Mithi at Gautam Nagar. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India
water hyacinth and garbage on the Mithi river near the Gautam Nagar stretch
Water hyacinth and the flow of solid waste render the Mithi practically invisible at Gautam Nagar. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Solid waste, hyacinth growth and desilting ramp remnants diminish the river’s conveyance capacity. Facing deficient (or non-existent) wastewater and solid waste management, households are compelled to connect their wastewater outlets to the existing stormwater drains. However, such waste inflows to the river are not just from households.

Community toilet at gautam nagar also adjoins the Mithi river
Side view of the community toilet at Gautam Nagar. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Community toilets in Gautam Nagar, Marol Shivaji Nagar and Saki Naka, in the upstream stretch, and Babasaheb Ambedkar Chawl, in the downstream stretch, connect to stormwater outlets flowing to the river as well.

community toilets built along Mithi river at Shivaji Nagar
Abandoned community toilet at Shivaji Nagar with a new community toilet right behind (See orange wall). Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

A new community toilet was observed behind an abandoned toilet at Shivaji Nagar in Saki Naka. Such a situation usually stems from lack of maintenance of the existing toilet leading to its dilapidated state. As a result, a new toilet block is introduced by local politicians, instead of repairing the old one, and connecting it to a new sewage line. This leads to one more sewage outlets discharging into the river, thereby highlighting the complex nature of wastewater management needs in and around the river.

According to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s Action Plan for Mithi River, 947 industries, including automobile manufacturing, plywood supply stores, hardware stores, silk mills, ready mix concrete suppliers and scrap dealers, dot Mithi’s banks.

plywood supply shops along Mithi river at BKC
Plywood suppliers along the bank of the Mithi at Kurla West (BKC). Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Copious amounts of waste, from these industries, make their way into the river and end up clogging it.

plastic scrap shops on the Mithi river
Plastic from scrap shops end up in the river. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Solid waste that ends up in the river restricts its stormwater carrying capacity, requiring the river to be desilted, all year round.

Read more: To clean our oceans, we need to remove plastic from our rivers

How the Mithi River impacts urban settlements

view of Kolivery village close to the river
The river is dangerously close to Kolivery village, Kalina, Santacruz. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Many settlements are dangerously close to the water’s edge. One such example is at Santacruz-Chembur link road, in the downstream stretch of the river where the river is meters away from Kolivery village – visible on the left above.

Scrap shops built on the banks of the river
Scrap shops at the edge of the Mithi near Chunabhatti-BKC flyover. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Other examples are of the scrap shops, near Chunabhatti-BKC flyover and CST Road bridge, Kalina, that are exposed to high water levels through the year and are even more vulnerable during the monsoon months.

Space constrained Mumbai, witnesses competing demands from housing and industries, eyeing the land abutting the river. The new constructions require access to desilt or train the river.

The two photos below, from Saki Naka Creek bridge and Raje Shivaji Nagar, Marol, show the demolitions of existing low-income settlements in order to gain access to the river.

demolished slums on the banks of Mithi river
Removal of low-incoming establishments at Saki Naka Creek Bridge. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India
houses under demolition at Marol
Demolition of houses at Raje Shivaji Nagar, Marol. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India
constructions close to Mithi river
Buildings within the Marol Co-operative Industrial Estate are now closer to the river’s edge due to river widening. Pic: Abhijit Waghre/WRI India

Widening the river without buffers makes settlements and businesses abutting the river particularly vulnerable to floods. For example, industrial buildings in the Marol Co-operative Industrial Estate, have come 5 meters closer to the river’s edge. Additionally, sewage and industrial waste deplete the river’s capacity, intensifying flow to downstream areas.

As seen in our first photo essay, the trained river can no longer “swell” to accommodate high flows in the upstream areas, making downstream areas flood prone. Building flood resilience for the Mithi River needs a systemic approach. This includes customizing waste management for the unique context of settlements abutting the river and integrating buffer capacity to hold stormwater in the upstream areas thereby delaying the flow downstream.

The Mithi river must be allowed to function as a robust flood resilience infrastructure for the city, instead of turning into a dreaded bottleneck. City authorities must envision the river as an all vibrant, urban ecosystem, with multi-functional land use, as opposed to its current role of a drainage channel to the Arabian Sea.

The original version of this article appeared on World Resources Institute India’s blog on October 27th, 2022. Views expressed here are the authors’ own.

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