The demise of rivers

The ecology of rivers is irreversibly damaged through riverfront projects in India

By Venkatesh Dutta
Published: Tuesday 13 March 2018
Courtesy: counterview.org

The riverfront development project in Lucknow is a classic example of how over-dominance of channel engineering may result in loss of river ecosystems and river processes. The ecology of the river, its floodplain and other key fluvial characteristics were transformed substantially to satisfy the greed of a select few without creating any beneficial public utility or improving the water quality. The river has become a casualty of the blunders of planners. Ironically, the historical characteristics that gave the natural riverfront of Gomti its unique identity have been largely erased with the heavily-concretised active floodplains. The river channel width was drastically reduced to 100-130 metres from an average width of 285 metres.

The channelisation has also resulted in a loss of place-based collective memories as several public ghats were removed. A thick diaphragm wall that goes 11 metres below the river bed and five metres above prevents access to its waters. The diaphragm wall is further supported by another anchoring wall which is heavily reinforced. The widespread ecosystem degradation caused by filling of wetlands, channelisation and concretisation of the floodplains has led to a physical, mental and spiritual disengagement with the cultural landscape of the Gomti riverfront. The foundation stone of Gomti riverfront development project was laid by the former Chief Minister of UP Akhilesh Yadav on April 7, 2015 and in the first phase, the 8.5 km stretch between Harding Bridge and Gomti Barrage was taken up. The initial plan was to complete it by December 2016, but the deadline was extended twice. Initially, the project cost was estimated at around `656.58 crore but with the addition of interceptor drains, high mast lights, fountains and new features the cost increased to `1,531 crore. So far, over `1,400 crore have been spent, the water quality has worsened, channel width has been drastically reduced and a thick green carpet of water hyacinth covers several stretches.

Canalisation of rivers through cosmetic approaches

Natural flow regimes of rivers in India are already challenged due to various hydropower, diversion and river-linking projects. A new threat is the trend of riverfront development projects in the name of river beautification. They are nothing but cosmetic attempts to convert a river into a canal. Riverfront development enthusiasts associated mostly with irrigation department or land development agencies give reasons like “connecting the city back to its rivers by activating riverfronts” behind supporting large-scale civil engineering projects. They also claim that such projects are attempts towards “urban renewal” and “heritage tourism”. In essence, riverfronts are treated as extension of urban spaces by developers. In doing so, they are not only destroying critical floodplain habitats but also altering river system’s integrity.

In India, the riverfront development project started with the Sabarmati riverfront development project in Ahmedabad. A concrete embankment wall on both banks with walkways was constructed covering 10.4 km of the banks on both sides of the river. The natural channel width of the river having the narrowest cross-section of 330 metres was changed and narrowed uniformly to 275 metres. The river thus became a permanently impounded pond of fixed width losing the original character of a river that evolved with variable flows and seasonality. The Vasna barrage in the downstream stops the water for the limited urban stretch, which is released from main Narmada canal about 10.4 km upstream from the barrage. So, even the water of Sabarmati for this stretch is imported from Narmada. The project was given great fanfare and pushed as a role model for many urban rivers in India. The project was inspired by riverfronts of Thames in London and Seine in Paris. Strangely, none of these rivers have any similarity with our rivers.

This was followed by the Godavari Riverfront Development at Nanded in Maharashtra, which is a typical small Indian town and an important religious centre for the Sikhs. The project was supported by a public private partnership between IL&FS and the Nanded Waghala Municipal Corporation under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The north bank of the river Godavari which divides the city into two parts was developed for about five kms and the south bank was intended for an eco-park. Recently, Patna Riverfront Development Project, for 6.6 km stretch of the Ganga river was given a go ahead under the centrally-sponsored scheme of National Ganga River Basin Authority which mentions the objective as “create a new public realm facing towards the river that is strongly connected to the city’s urban fabric”. There are several riverfront development projects which are under planning stages. They are liked by civil engineers and land developers as they have large allocation of funds. Tunga riverfront of 8 km length in Shimoga district in Karnataka is under preliminary assessment. Ten towns having rivers were earlier identified in Karnataka as “top towns” for riverfront development projects by Infrastructure Development Corporation (Karnataka) Limited. These projects are being assessed mainly for their financial viability and not ecological integrity. A fragile river bed and its associated floodplains and wetlands are used as means to generate revenues.

We have failed to understand that various species have evolved in our rivers under different types of hydrologic variation. Rivers have maintained hydrologically-distinct ecosystems and heterogeneous habitats. Any large differences in magnitude, frequency, duration and timing of flow events cause severe impacts on abundance and persistence of species.

Recipes for rivers' demise

In reality, riverfront development schemes are more about money and real estate than river restoration. In all of the riverfront projects, generally a weir, dam or barrage is constructed for the urban stretch both in the upstream and downstream segment of the river to retain water at a designated level the year round. This means impounding water for a limited stretch creating ponding of water even in lean period. The river is then dried up and dredged to give it a uniform slope, the weir then holds the water on both ends of the riverfront stretch and a steady perennial river level is maintained. Sometimes, water is imported from some other river. The river banks are then heavily concretised to provide spaces for social and public infrastructure such as car parking, plaza, walkways, restaurants, theme parks and gardens. Even commercial activity can be drawn close to the river using high mast lights in the night, making it the “vibrant heart of the urban fabric”.

The active floodplain now becomes developers’ paradise and sometimes a parallel road strip is built to ease urban traffic and reduce the congestion. While this sounds good, the scene at upstream and downstream of the riverfront tells a different story. The river gets dried up downstream and there is momentous logging of pollutants in the upstream. The natural drains meeting the main river are tapped and connected to intercepting drains and a sewage treatment plant ignoring the flooding capacity of the drains and catchment needs of such natural drains that have evolved over thousands of years. Most of the upcoming cities in India have poor drainage system and solid-waste management plan. Many smaller rivers and tributaries have been converted into sewage flowing drains. The riverfront development projects ignore treating the sewage that flows into the river through natural drains and fails to provide a holistic system that respects river functions and their integrity. The improvements in river water quality and improving the waste management system or drainage have been given secondary or no importance while designing such projects.

Channel engineering for straightening the river channel under the riverfront development project has fixed the river Gomti into an artificial course for about 8.1 kms. Land should have been reclaimed only at certain locations along the river and not continuously all along the river. The current pattern of channelisation depicts profound exercises of control dominated by engineering an otherwise fragile ecosystem. The design of diaphragm walls on both sides shows that the architects behind the riverfront development scheme lacked firm understanding of the physical, biological and chemical processes that drive river ecosystems. The design has been kept uniform for both the banks even though right and left banks are fundamentally different from each other and perform different functions. For maintaining even flow in river against the natural law of variable flow in the river, a “ponding regulator” in the form of a rubber dam has been erected near La Martiniere Boys College in the downstream. No environmental impact assessment (EIA) was done for erecting a rubber dam and obstructing the flow.

Dodging facts to get environmental clearance

Strangely, in all riverfront development projects, EIA is by default considered not necessary as the type of projects for which prior assessment is needed does not mention riverfront development projects. The developers take the easy way of “building and construction projects or township and area development projects” (mentioned in Schedule 8(a) and 8(b) of EIA notification, 2006) for seeking No Objection Certificate from the environmental agency. The EIA study for Patna riverfront project mentions, “since, the total built up area of the project is about 2,700 sq. m, which is less than 20,000 sq. m, and the total construction area is about 69,500 sq. m, which is less than 1,50,000 sq. m, the project does not attract requirement of Environmental Clearance under EIA Notification, 2006 of GoI.” Even the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, is not applicable to the project, despite the presence of Gangetic Dolphins in the river. The report claims that the project area is not located within 10 km radius of a wildlife sanctuary area. Strangely, only the built-up area is considered as the project affected area, ignoring the upstream and downstream consequences of riverfront projects.

This route was also used for Gomti riverfront development project in Lucknow. The irrigation department approached the directorate of environment in June 2016 for environmental clearance, almost one year after the riverfront development project started in Lucknow on Gomti. The report mentioned that “the total plot area of the project is 72,028 sq. m and built-up area is 11,868 sq. m, and hence the project does not fall in any category as per EIA Notification, 2006.” The matter was discussed by the state level expert appraisal committee (SEAC) in its meetings on August 20 and September 3, 2016, and they believed what the consultants presented. The area of 16 metres deep diaphragm walls, (11 metres below the river bed and five metres above) on both sides of the river spanning over 8.2 km with a thickness of 600 mm was not included in the constructed area. Even the built up area did not include the areas used for intercepting drains on both banks and concrete pathways. The EIA study did not consider the loss of sand banks which were having breeding sites of turtles. Even crocodiles were spotted several times in the upstream of the riverfront project and in the Kukrail river, a tributary now converted into a drain. A committee set up by Chief Minister Yogi Aditya Nath to review irregularities in the riverfront project objected strongly on the project’s river hydraulics, flood control and diaphragm walls design criteria. The issue of water pollution was not addressed adequately; rather it was assumed that pollution would be pushed downstream through parallel intercepting drains on both sides of the river.

Dynamic aspect of the riverbanks and shoreline

The river banks, which are ecologically very dynamic, are designed to be largely undeveloped which is useful for bank storage, maintenance of floodplain biodiversity besides connecting older channels of the river and the wetlands. Integrity of river banks is maintained naturally through periodic drought and flood cycles. The riverfront is not a hard boundary, but a zone that shifts with time and topography. The dynamic aspect of the riverbanks and shoreline has always been a basis of riverfront vegetation and water-edge habitats. Groundwater is fundamental to sustaining the water in Gomti during lean seasons. The flux of water between the river and the aquifer has been affected by the vertical concrete wall that goes 11 metres below the river bed level. This has also disturbed river bed and river bank sediments and the extent to which the channel of the river intersects the saturated part of the aquifer. The link between groundwater and river flows is fundamental to conserving the riparian environment, especially when the river is groundwater fed. The riverfront projects are ecologically dangerous and cosmetic projects that do not restore, respect and enhance the vital river ecosystems that thrive, or once thrived in and around the river. Our river engineers need to know that river banks and riverfronts should never be concretised where the ecological well-being of our water edge habitats are protected, restored and enhanced, regardless of how high the commercial and profit-making values add to the economy. Rivers make their own waterfronts; planners should invest in ecological well-being and must not create ecosystems contingent upon their destruction.

(The author is an associate professor of environmental sciences at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Central University, Lucknow)

The article was first published in State of India's Environment 2018.

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