Mithi River, Mumbai

So far, the only out-of-town streams that I’ve shared are those in highly developed cities where the streams are undergoing various phases of restoration. Among the neglected urban streams that require a much greater allocation of resources are those in the densest of cities.

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Photo of Mithi River at Bhim Nagar. Source: http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/mithi-recounting-rivers-apathetic-journey

In Mumbai, India, the Mithi River offers such an example.

In many ways, Mumbai is the New York of India. It is not the nation’s capital but it is the county’s financial center, an international seaport, an island city that has grown in size over the centuries through land reclamation, and containing a great diversity of nationalities within its borders as well as a dramatic gap in social inequality.

Where it begins

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J.G. Bartholomew, Archibald Constable and Company – Constable’s Hand Atlas of India, 1893 edition

Originally, the city-island of Salsette on which Mumbai lies was an archipelago of seven islands separated by shallow water. Following the acquisition of the islands by England in 1661, they were gradually merged and developed into a city. On the map above, Mithi River is marked in blue. Its headwaters are the artificial lakes Vihar and Powai, which supply the city its drinking water. The river widened into Mahim Bay.

As the city developed, the river’s width became narrower and the former marshland and sandbanks were transformed into crowded slum districts that dumped refuse into the river. The expansion of the former Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport onto the riverbed further compromised its flow.

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In July 2015, Kamdas Kadam, the Environment Minister of the state of Maharashtra declared that based on research, the Mithi was no longer a river but an open sewer as all of its water had originated from sewage. In daily conversation, the river is described as a nullah, or storm water channel.

When water is stagnant, diseases emerge, and when water is plentiful, it overflows its banks onto the slums, again contributing to deaths from diseases. On July 26, 2005, the Mithi overflowed its banks following a heavy rainstorm, wreaking damage on the slums and causing hundreds of deaths. That year, the state of Maharashtra created the Mithi River Development and Protection Authority to coordinate efforts to restore this stream.

In May 2011, citing the cleanup of the Sabarmati River shoreline in Ahmedabad as one example, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) of Mumbai released its report on the feasibility of restoring the Mithi River along with a companion documentary. With enough attention, the river will receive the financial support it needs, with enough education, residents along its banks will recognize the possibility of its restoration and take the lead its its revival.

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Google Earth aerial of Mithi River

For centuries, the solution for polluted urban waterways was to confine them to concrete channels and then cover them completely. Nature tends to reclaim what is hers as concrete channels burst their banks and sewers filled to capacity overflow into the streets. Mumbai recognizes that the only lasting solution for a degraded urban stream is to restore it as closely to its natural state as possible.

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Malad Creek by Ravi Khemka. May 6, 2010. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ravikhemka/4588707292

On a local note: Tom Miller, publisher of the architecture history blog Daytonian In Manhattan mentions the long-buried Sunfish Pond in today’s post on the Lost Peter Cooper House.

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