From a River to a Drain: Looking at Assam’s Bharalu
Common Tragedy Across Urban Centers: Northeast India No Exception
A common occurrence observed across all urban centers is the ill fate of its water bodies. The streams which would earlier carry rain water starts receiving sewage and solid waste dumps and turns into wastewater carrying channels. The degradation of streams as a direct result of poor urban planning is known as “urban stream syndrome”. Some of the symptoms include a) changes in water quality b) decrease in biodiversity such as fishes and water birds’ population around the stream c) altered hydrograph i.e. increasing flash floods or lower sluggish flows in the channel d) increased algal growth and eutrophication. Streams perform a number of essential services in urban areas such as regulation of floods, dilution of pollution load, habitat provisioning for biodiversity and carries socio-cultural values as sites for various social functions and rituals. Their degradation not only affects environment, but also health and sanitation of the citizens.
Northeast India (NEI) is undergoing rapid changes in its race for development. Growing economic development is a much desired aspiration of people; however, it is also important to learn from examples of pollution from across the country and incorporate the concept of “Sustainable development” at the earliest. One such lesson is of managing water pollution: the impacts of river pollution and the immense capital and resources that is being invested for improving water quality of Ganga and Yamuna basins. In February 2020, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had identified 60 river stretches that are extremely polluted in Northeast region. The major reason of pollution has been identified as discharge of sewage, industrial waste and coal mining effluents. It definitely breaks the general perception of pristine environment of NEI: it should be an eye opener for planners and administrative units of the region.
Guwahati is the biggest city of Northeast India, situated in the bank of river Brahmaputra. River Bharalu is one such tributary of Brahmaputra that has turn into a wastewater carrying drain in Guwahati.
The river originates in Khasi hills and is known by the name of Bahini in initial 13 kms (approx.). A rivulet Basistha bifurcates from it which flows to Deepor beel: an important wetland and Ramsar site. Bahini flows through the city and after passing Assam State Botanical Zoo, it is known as Bharalu. Bharalu stretch flows through densely populated industrial and commercial areas of Guwahati and meets Brahmaputra at Bharalumukh.
Bharalu used to be natural drainage channel for carrying rainwater. As the city grew, so did the quantum of waste generated by people. As per a report by the Pollution Control Board, Assam; the major waste streams that enters Bharalu are:
- City sewage: Guwahati is not covered by a sewerage network. Liquid waste from households and commercial spaces and septic tank waste (removed due to overflow or tank cleaning) is dumped to nearby drains which finds its way to the river.
- Open defecation in the river bank from temporary households (slums) made in certain sections of river bank, in absence of functional community sanitation system or public toilets
- Dumping of municipal solid waste (plastic, metal scrap, food waste etc.) in river due to inadequate waste collection system, and public carelessness. The biodegradable matter decays which causes odour issues and non-biodegradable matter clogs the river.
- Industrial effluent from the small to medium industries in the city, including automobile maintenance areas and fueling stations. The Indian Oil Refinery discharges treated industrial effluent to Noonmati drain, which also joins Bharalu.
- Biomedical waste from hospitals near Bharalu is believed to find its way to the drains and municipal solid waste stream dumped in the river
About 39 drains empty into Bahini-Bharalu river, dumping Guwahati city’s waste to the river system. In 2018, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had classified Bharalu as one of the critically polluted rivers in India and put it in priority-I river stretch: the maximum Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) found in the river water was 52 mg/l. A higher BOD means that microorganisms are using up oxygen to decompose organic matter, and that reduces oxygen availability for aquatic lives. A BOD of 3 mg/l is desirable for healthy rivers. The dissolved oxygen content of the river remains nil during most times. Heavy metals, inorganic contaminants such as nitrate and fluoride and petrochemicals, pesticides and pathogens have been detected in Bharalu.
TIME FOR URGENT ACTION
Water quality degradation of Bharalu is not an isolated event. The pollutants including carcinogenic materials like Arsenic and Chromium from surface water transmits to the aquifer system and contaminates groundwater. It is a matter of great concern as groundwater is a drinking water source for a significant population of Guwahati. The unhygienic condition of Bharalu is not only unaesthetic but also a health threat to nearby communities. Pollution of Bahini-Bharalu also affects the wetlands that the river and their rivulets drains to; and the habitat destruction affects the biodiversity that thrived in these river-wetland systems. The worsening of Bharalu river quality is a direct result of poor urban planning and poor actions of people.
In 2018, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had ordered State Pollution Control Boards to make action plans for restoration of polluted river stretches identified by CPCB. Assam Pollution Control Board had accordingly made an action plan, with proposal for three decentralized sewage treatment plants for drains which empty to Bharalu along with regular cleaning of the river and the wetlands. As of July 2020, the Guwahati Metropolitan Drinking Water and Sewerage Board has found issues of land unavailability for two of the three STPs proposed. Preparation of inception report and detailed project reports for sewerage and solid waste management are underway. Also a project in pipeline is the Guwahati Sewerage Project assisted by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which had been approved in 2015 with a project duration of 7 years, to provide sewerage facilities to Zone I (South Central and South East) of Guwahati. However, little progress has been made in the project so far.
Even with various plans and proposals, work for reviving Bharalu needs a push towards targeted actions. Cleaning up of Bharalu should not turn into a long era of spent resources and time. Along with infrastructure development for waste management, institutional structure for operation and management of these projects should be strengthened simultaneously. Establishing community ownership is important to change habits and this can be achieved through active involvement of people in project management. Involvement of local people and expert groups for developing pollution management strategies will help in on-ground implementation of plans. Restoration of rivers are always a difficult task, and cooperation between different agencies and strong social backing and political will is required to achieve this target.