Down To Earth talks to Sneha Shahi about the issues facing Indian rivers and her own experience of working with two of them
Back in 2019, Sneha Shahi, then a student at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, Gujarat, led a team of students and volunteers to clean the Bhukhi, a natural stream that had turned into a sewer. Her efforts enabled wildlife such as crocodiles, turtles, fish and birds to return to the Bhukhi.
Shahi is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), Bengaluru. As part of her doctoral studies, she is working on a project regarding the Thamirabarani river in southern Tamil Nadu.
On the eve of World Rivers Day, Down To Earth questioned Shahi about the issues facing Indian rivers and her own experience of working with two of them. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai: Why did you decide to clean up the Bhukhi?
Sneha Shahi: The Bhukhi is a 7.5-kilometre stream that connects to the Vishwamitri river in Vadodara. It flows through the campus of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.
We used to take samples of water from it for our laboratory practicals. When it came to trying and finding problems within one’s backyard and solving them as part of the United Nations Development Programme Tide Turners Campaign, I and others in our team tried to find something that was accessible.
We initially thought the Bhukhi was a sewer and tried to clean it. But to our surprise, it turned out to be a natural stream connected to a wetland and then to a river.
The name of the waterbody is the Bhukhi Nallah (a traditional name for small streams in south Asia) since it looked like one. We wanted to get the watercourse’s name and its denizens’ home back. So, we finally started to work towards that goal.
RG: What types of waste did you find during the clean-up?
SS: We have encountered bulk wastes such as cardboard and thermocol boxes in huge amounts along with styrofoam plates and cutlery, a lot of single-use plastic such as chips packets, drinking water and soft drink bottles.
We have also found a lot of cloth waste that was thrown directly from bridges, food waste packed in polythene bags and also medical waste like catheters and masks.
RG: Would you blame authorities for not disposing off such waste properly which then finds its way into waterbodies such as the Bhukhi?
SS: Definitely. The Bhukhi is supposed to run dry in seasons other than the monsoon since it is a natural stream. There is no proper sewage treatment planning when it comes to urban wastewater treatment. So, most of the water flowing in streams such as the Bhukhi is sewage water.
When people see that a natural stream is filled with sewage water, they think it is a dustbin. They thus end up throwing a lot of waste in it.
There is a lack of awareness as well as a desire to do something. For instance, when we started cleaning the Bhukhi, we were questioned as to why we were doing so. We were told it was not our job since we were students. It was the contractors’ job to clean it.
We got a lot of support in terms of arranging workshops to make people aware about these kinds of systems that are in our habitat. However, in terms of cleaning, we had very less support. So, we had to bring in a lot of students and volunteers who were on the same page as us to help us out.
RG: Did you clean the entire 7.5 km course of the Bhukhi?
SS: The initial plan was to clean the entire 7.5-kilometre stretch of the stream. However, we eventually could clean only the 0.5 km section that flowed through the university. That is because the primary support in terms of manpower came from the university.
People did stop throwing waste into the rest of the stream. Clean-ups do happen annually before the monsoon so that the drains do not get clogged up.
We were not allowed to interfere with these clean-ups as that would have reflected badly on those who were in charge of actually cleaning the stream regularly.
We thus ended up cleaning the university section and ensuring that the rest outside it remained as it was or went back to its natural resilience.
RG: What about the residents of the stream?
SS: The spot where we were carrying out the clean-up is just 200 metres away from the Vishwamitri, which sustains a large population of marsh crocodiles or muggers.
Streams like the Bhukhi, which usually do not have much water, are essential for carrying excess floodwaters during the rains.
The Vishwamitri originates from the Pavagadh hill and thus gets a lot of run-off downstream. When streams such as the Bhukhi are clogged, where will the excess water go?
This why the crocodiles end up entering homes in Vadodara during the rains every year. They tend to live in places where the water is not very deep. When it rains, they should ideally be going into streams like the Bhukhi. But since it is clogged, they come into human habitations.
RG: What is your ongoing project on the Thamirabarani about?
SS: I am currently in the second year of my doctoral studies. The work entails social-ecological systems and setting up observatories of the same.
The Thamirabarani starts from the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve and ends up in the Gulf of Mannar. It flows through two big districts, Thoothukudi and Tirunelveli.
It is the only perennial river in Tamil Nadu which starts and ends in the same state. It has a lot of significance for people in the state culturally, ecologically and historically.
The project entails observatories being set up along the river. We want local people and different stakeholders coming in to set up such observatories to have a continuous long-term monitoring of the river.
Currently, the water levels are fine but the flow is less in the summer. But since the river is perennial, the impact does not show much. But when we move downstream, we can see reduced flow and a lot of water quality issues.
We want to map the riparian zone for native and invasive vegetation and replace the invasive with the native.
We also want to find out what kind of social paradigms are playing out in both districts including gender issues, climate injustice issues, agriculture, water demand and supply.
RG: Indian rivers are full of waste; chemical spills find their way into them; they have been damned and are being considered for inter-linking; they are being mined for sand; millions of rupees have been spent on India’s holiest river but it is still unclean. What should be the ideal solution to the problems that are faced by Indian rivers and other water bodies?
SS: I believe working on a smaller water body would be more logical and feasible because these feed into the main river.
We cannot just start restoration plans on the scale of a river. We need to see the different localities that the river goes through, the water and administrative bodies in its vicinity and bring them on the same page rather than constructing a ghat or giving the ownership of a ghat to someone or constructing a river front.
That is a good aesthetic model but not very sustainable when it comes to the long-term health of a river.
Rivers are definitely choked with chemicals and plastics. I don’t know why our policies are not looking at them. There is no policy on streams or the drains that flow into the river. Many of these drains are natural.
Again, wastewater is an issue that starts from our homes, which in turn connect to drains. Can we have drains connected to sewage treatment plants or a better treatment system which is low-energy cost and is more nature-based?
These kinds of things can help. But for starters, I would look at what all goes into the river. So, we should work first on a local scale, then an intermediate scale and then on the scale of a river.
RG: Should rivers be granted personhood?
SS: From the interactions that I have had with the Bhukhi and now the Thamiraparani, I find that people do want to see their rivers clean.
But they do not know how to achieve that. They have gone about living around a river in a certain way and feel it is culturally important. But they do not know how they are actually damaging it. So, if we can show them what is actually happening and that the river has a life of its own, it would help.
That is where science communication comes in. There also has to be a circularity in the leadership that goes into conservation plans and from the community itself. That would give rivers a voice in the form of a local stakeholder.
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