Watery grave: How garbage, encroachments contaminated Guwahati’s only river

Natural and artificial drains in the city get clogged during heavy rains and spill on to the roads

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 07 August 2020
Watery grave
Bharalu river’s ability to carry excess rainwater to the Brahmaputra has reduced because people use it as a dumping ground for garbage (Photographs: Manash Das) Bharalu river’s ability to carry excess rainwater to the Brahmaputra has reduced because people use it as a dumping ground for garbage (Photographs: Manash Das)

Every year during the monsoon, Guwahati in Assam witnesses devastating floods. After years of inaction, former chief minister Tarun Gogoi set up a committee on July 17, 2014, to study the problem and suggest remedial measures.

The state administration realised floods are caused by poor drainage systems. Natural and artificial drains in the city get clogged during heavy rains and spill on to the roads. Bharalu, the only river that flows through Guwahati and carries excess rainwater to the Brahmaputra, has been reduced to a dumping ground for garbage by the residents.

Illegal constructions along the Bharalu make matters worse. “The natural drainage has been blocked in many areas as a result of encroachment,” the former chief minister told the media.

It is not just the river. The encroachment of the city’s protected wetlands, which took care of the water during floods, are a double whammy. Gogoi promised measures to avert such disasters. For many years, floods threw life out of gear in the largest city of the state. Houses were damaged, property was lost and agriculture and education suffered. But the consequences this year were unprecedented.

On June 27, 2014, the India Meteorological Department recorded 57 millimetres rainfall in Guwahati. This was the fifth highest in a decade. Vast areas of the city were inundated. The National Disaster Response Force had to be called in to rescue marooned families in the flood-affected areas. Nine people lost their lives.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi blames floods in Guwahati on the blockage of the natural drainage system

River becomes a drain

Apart from the Bharalu river, there are three rivulets within the city — Mahabharalu, Bahini and Basista. Throughout the Bharalu’s course, feeder drains feed waste water into it, reducing the river to a drainage pipeline.

According to a study carried out by the Assam Pollution Control Board (APCB) in 2010, Bharalu and Bahini pass through the most populated areas of Guwahati. In the absence of adequate waste disposal mechanism in these areas, people dump solid waste into the water, worsening the pollution.

An independent study by Lakhimi Gogoi, an academician associated with the Narangi Anchalik College, Assam, showed that the household waste generation in Guwahati is almost 490 tonnes per day.

Even government bodies, such as the Railways, treat the river as a garbage dumping site. An inspection on February 11, 2014, by APCB officials found that the diesel shed of the Railways in New Guwahati releases untreated toxic effluent into public drains. This merges with the Bharalu, said APCB Chairperson RM Dubey.

“We routinely clean the river. But during monsoon the dug out silt slips back into the water. Another major problem is that as soon as the river is cleaned, it gets filled with plastic and other garbage thrown into the drains which flow into the Bharalu. These get collected in a heap near Bharalumukh pumping station-I. Most of it is non-biodegradable waste generated by business establishments,” explained DK Roy, a senior engineer associated with the water resource department, tasked with cleaning the river.

Government officials, however, blamed the floods largely on the encroachment of the Bharalu. Over the years, illegal structures have mushroomed on its banks. The wetlands are not safe either. Silsako beel, a protected water body, is surrounded by a multiplex, a hotel, a hotel management institute and over 1,000 small houses.

Researchers pointed out that the intensity of floods as well as the area affected by it in the city have increased. Environ, a Guwahati-based research organisation, conducted a preliminary investigation from 2011 to 2013 in parts of the city — Hatigaon, Panjabari, Ganeshguri, Christian Basti, Bhangagarh, Paltan Bazar, Ambari, Silpukhuri and Chandmari.

The group concluded that the water level in these areas during flash floods associated with heavy rainfall rose by 7-15 centimetres every year.

“If this condition persists, after 10 years the average height of the water will go up to 70-150 cm from the present level,” said Amarjyoti Kashyap of Environ. Several areas in the city that were earlier untouched by water were flooded this year, he added.

On being asked about this, Prateek Hajela, commissioner and secretary to the Assam government, political department, said fearing the possibility of floods, house owners in areas that were usually safe raised the height of their compounds as precautionary measure.

This pushed the rainwater on to the roads and contributes to flood, he added.

Will eviction help?

Following a directive of the state government to clear the Bharalu river and other water bodies in the city of encroachment, the district administration embarked on an eviction drive along the Bharalu from June 30, 2014.

Hajela said the state chalked out a three-pronged approach. This included clearing all illegal constructions around primary drains, simultaneous dredging and action against those who gave permission for construction.

The administration also cracked the whip on encroachers around Silsako beel.

“We have dismantled illegal structures at the beel. We will continue with our drive to make way for smooth flow of water through Bharalu and other rivulets which carry excess rainwater from the city to the Brahmaputra,” said M Angamuthu, in-charge deputy commissioner of Kamrup Metropolitan district.

He added there were similar plans of eviction for the three rivulets in the city. Tall promises by the administration after floods are, however, an annual ritual.

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