A Trip Down Mithi River

Environment

If you travel by the Western Railway in Mumbai, you will pass a stretch between Mahim and Bandra station where you will see a black body of water with an unpleasant smell. This is the Mithi River. The polluted river originates from the hills of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Borivili and travels 18kms to the Mahim Bay. A lesser known fact about the Mahim Bay area, where the Mithi River meets the Arabian Sea, is that it is a nominated bird sanctuary where migratory birds come for nesting. This part of the river is also full of mangroves.

When the river was not as polluted as it is today, it used to serve as an important storm water drain for Mumbai. In fact, experts believe that the 26/7 deluge in Mumbai may not have led to as many deaths as it did if the river was not filled with silt and garbage. This silt and garbage has collected over the last few years, during which time the river has been used more as a sewer and its importance as a storm water drain has reduced. Ironically, the river now poses a hazard during high tide as it brings polluted water into the city.

Considering the urgent need to reclaim the river, Gautam Kirtane, an Observer Research Foundation (ORF) research fellow, and his colleagues Riddhi Chokhawala and Dhaval Desai have conducted a study on the history of the river and how it can be brought back to life. Talking about the Mithi River Kirtane says, "The river's existence dates back to the 3rd Century BC, when Buddhist monks inhabited the Kanheri Caves near SGNP. The river is part of Mumbai's history and this is getting lost. We as citizens have to revive it and save it from going extinct. The river is more of a sewer and if we put in a little effort to beautify it, Mumbai will be a better place to live in."

The research team has also focused on the threat caused to the mangroves along the banks of the Mithi River. This area has been exploited by people, mainly immigrants, who dump garbage and even defecate there as they don't have access to toilets and lack basic sanitation facilities. This study is meant to encourage the people of Mumbai to ask the government to clean up the river and revive its surroundings. To launch their study, the researchers from ORF invited the media to travel by boat from Mahim Bay into the river and witness the reality of the Mithi River. On this trip we were exposed to some very disturbing sights. Plastic bags, bottles and garlands floated all across the river. We walked through the mangroves only to notice a big wall, which has been built by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) between the river and the mangroves. The wall does not allow water from the river to enter the mangroves, which can only lead to their death. The fumes from the contaminated water made it difficult to breathe. Such is the state of the river that flows through Mumbai city. What's worse, the redevelopment work taken up by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and MMRDA post the floods in 2005 has converted this river into a concretised gutter.

The researchers have documented all their work into a book and a documentary film called 'Making the Sewer…A River Again - Why Mumbai Must Reclaim its Mithi'. These documents trace the history of the Mithi River along with details of the changes it has been through. The book covers every facet of the river, from the 3rd Century BC to its conversion into a sewer over the last 50 years. The documentary and the book have also stated assumptions of how the river will look in 2020 if we start reviving it now. Perhaps, if the river is cleaned up it could be Mumbai's answer to its water problems.

SOME INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE MITHI RIVER
  • The river gave Mumbai its first piped water supply system.
  • The Vakola nullah is the biggest tributary of the Mithi River and also its biggest contaminator.
  • The Mauryans, Marathas, Portuguese and British have seen the Mithi River flow through the city of Mumbai, which makes it a significant part of Mumbai’s history.
HOW YOU CAN HELP SAVE THE RIVER

Create awareness about the pathetic condition of the Mithi River among people in your neighbourhood. You can also take a ride by boat from Mahim, opposite Koliwada beach, and see the condition of the river and the mangroves for yourself.

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