A Catchment’s Tale

When people tell me that a river is dead, dirty, polluted, I want to know why.

By Ant Parsons, John Brydon, Dr Sarah Cook, Dr Nathalie Gilbert

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Mithi Catchment Investigation Team: Ant Parsons (ALP Synergy), John Brydon (Thames 21), Dr Sarah Cook (University of Warwick), Dr Nathalie Gilbert (Thames 21). Photo: Ant Parsons

Everyone has heard of Mumbai, India’s largest city with an estimated population of over 20 million. But few will realise that Mumbai is only two fifths the size of London, and even less will have heard of the River Mithi that flows through its heart. On a recent action research visit, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to investigate the Mithi catchment.

This journey started 7000km away, at the University of Warwick in May 2019, when my company ALP Synergy Ltd, was delivering the India UK Water Centre workshop “Science and Innovation for Catchment Management”. We were lucky enough to be co-leading the workshop with Professor Gupta from the India Institute of Technology Bombay, who along with fellow Indian researchers, shared insight on the challenges facing India’s rivers. This was hugely motivating!

The primary aim of the workshop was to establish new relationships and build collaborations which could explore catchment challenges, and one such opportunity emerged through two existing projects;

  • the University of Warwick PATHWAYs project, which is part of a three-year collaboration between the Department of Science and Technology (India) and the Natural Environment Research Council (UK), and,
  • the INTCATCH Horizon 2020 project which is bringing together a range of innovative monitoring tools and services for river and lake water quality into a single efficient and replicable business model that is fit for solving global water quality challenges.
mithi_lower River Mithi in its lower reaches. Photo: Ant Parsons

Fast forward 4 months and a team of action researchers from the University of Warwick, Thames 21 (a UK NGO) and ALP Synergy Ltd (a UK SME) were embarking on a catchment investigation of the River Mithi. The River Mithi flows from the Vihar and Powai Lakes on the edge of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park taking a tortuous route past the homes of the urban poor, heading towards the heart of the city.

Our first glimpse of the Mithi was a big surprise. We were in a very densely populated community, 2km from its source and we expected to see a river flowing with sewage and full of rubbish. Not at all. We had been told by community leaders we were engaging with that the people in the upper reaches were starting on a journey of taking action. Engaging in circular economy schemes to increase recycling, joining weekly litter collections along the river bank, and beginning to take ownership of the Mithi. This community activity was clearly evident.

The late monsoon rains persisted on the day of our investigation, so the river level was high and the flow was brown with silt. Clearly small-scale sewage pollution would be impossible to spot in such conditions, but larger discharges were clearly visible. We observed significant industrial discharges, contaminated road run-off and, as we travelled downstream, increasing plastic waste piled in and adjacent to the river. But the river was coping, with fishing birds sat on the overhanging branches.

ant_mithi The River Mithi at the start of the investigation. Photo: Ant Parsons

Large sections of the middle river were inaccessable due to military and police property, and a section passing under the airport. We got the feeling that terrible things go unseen somewhere in this section of the River Mithi, it is no secret that Mumbai has challenges with sewage collection and treatment (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/no-sewage-treatment-plant-in-mumbai-meets-ngt-norms/articleshow/69319069.cms).

We next accessed the river in its lower reaches at the Mahim Nature Park, a rare oasis of calm and green space. We were shocked by our final insight into this river’s journey, before it emptied into the sea. The smell hit us first, that pungent, stagnant, anoxic sewage smell. The Mithi told its own story as we looked across the wide expanse of its flood plain. The river had slowed as it widened, and was clearly dominated by the classic grey sewage flows that we were surprised not to have seen earlier. The litter and plastic created channels and islands, which bizarrely were still dotted with wading birds.

We learned a lot about the River Mithi and Mumbai on this investigation. We saw that slum communities can look after their waste and clean up their river (with the right support), and we also saw that nature was still in the fight along the whole river. We identified a number of industrial discharge points which would have been having an impact, if not for the late monsoon rain, and we saw the impact of sewage and litter in the lower reaches.

The River Mithi Catchment investigation was only one day in a week of action research which involved a wider UK team, a range of stakeholders, the INTCATCH water quality monitoring boat, some amazing community meetings and engaging with the Thane Pollution Control Board. The week ended in style on Versova Beach joining more the 3000 people taking action as part of the Worlds biggest beach clean on International Coastal Clean Up Day.

A week of immersion in Mumbai, engaging with researchers, community champions and the amazing culture proved inspirational for our team. Within a month of our return, two new India UK collaborative funding proposals have been developed, and our India UK ambitions continue to grow. If you would like to discuss collaboration then get in touch.

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Versova Beach Clean, International Coastal Clean Up Day Saturday 21st September. Photos: Ant Parsons


Ant Parsons
Innovation Director
ALP Synergy Ltd