When Akshay got in touch with us about doing a city walk in Ahmedabad that would concur with Siddharth’s walk along the Ganga, we were immediately enthused. Each of us has generally looked at “water” from a specific perspective – as river and riparian ecosystems, an element that can breathe life into urban spaces, an essential life-sustaining resource that is made accessible to people or withheld from them through the ways in which urban infrastructures are planned. But each of us has also been interested in engaging other perspectives and the city walks sounded like a good way for us to come together to understand the many facets of Ahmedabad’s waterscape and also encourage others into joining us on this journey.
If you visit the river in the central part of Ahmedabad today, what you will see is a canal that runs between the reclaimed banks of the Sabarmati river, and which is filled with Narmada water. The banks were reclaimed as part of the Sabarmati Riverfront Project which covers an approximate 11-km north-to-south stretch of the river. The Ahmedabad City Water Walks will take you just beyond this 11-km stretch since the story of the river as well as of the water that flows in our taps and then swirls down into the drain and disappears requires that we delve into less familiar territory. Perhaps this will also change how we look at the familiar.
Public knowledge and discussion around Ahmedabad’s water is almost non-existent among Amdavadis. The few discussions that take place revolve around two points: whether the riverfront project is appealing and the desirability of Narmada water. Amdavadis have very little understanding in relation to questions like “If Narmada water is being brought into the river, what happened to the Sabarmati’s water?”, “What happens to the river beyond the 11-km riverfront project?”, “How has the river been changing – what kind of biodiversity and green cover existed before?”, “How many different communities use the river and riverbed and how has this been changing?”, “How did Ahmedabad get drinking water before the Narmada canal was built?”, “Has provision of Narmada water to Ahmedabad led to more sustainable water use and more secure water access in the city?”, “What happens to the wastewater we produce?” These are some of the many questions that have persistently jumped out at us over the last few years and the Ahmedabad City Water Walks are a first step for us in unravelling the story of the river as an ecological and social history – and intertwined with it, the story of the water we use. To start on this journey, we embarked on two Sunday morning recees in August.
The first recce took us to the northern end of the city’s Sabarmati river, some 10 kilometres north of where the Sabarmati Riverfront Project ends, just beyond the city municipal limits, near the Narmada canal from where water flows into the Sabarmati. The second took us towards the southern end, starting south from the Vasna Barrage, which is a stone’s throw from where the Sabarmati Riverfront Project ends. Along the way we looked up at water gushing out of the Narmada canal through the Karai dam into the Sabarmati; stood at the western end of the Vasna Barrage and gazed at it stretching over the width of the river with its huge gates and kites flying overhead; peered into a stinky sewage pumping station; loitered among lilies in the riverbed; screwed up our noses at the giddy stench of industrial effluent; and more. We chatted with numerous people: a contractor in charge of laying a new water mains for Ahmedabad, a Sardar Sarovar Nigam official, an engineer from the Water Resources Department of the Gujarat government, fishermen, farmers, boys. We learnt a lot, had some questions answered, and came back home with more questions. We tried to find some answers to these by skimming government websites, newspaper articles and academic articles. We tried to trace key “water” landmarks of the city on Google Earth before, during and after the recces. Our Ahmedabad City Water Walks have crystallized through this and will engage with three main questions:
Where does my (and Ahmedabad’s) water come from?
Many of us know that the water supplied by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is Narmada water, many don’t. Most of us know if our housing society has a private bore-well and have a vague idea that this bore-well water needs to be treated before we drink it. But that’s where our knowledge generally ends. The first walk will try to trace our (and Ahmedabad’s) water footprint by going up north to the Narmada canal from where pipelines take Narmada water to the city’s treatment plants wherefrom treated water is then supplied to different parts of the city. The walk will end with a visit to the Kotarpur Water Treatment Plant, the largest of the city’s 3-4 treatment plants. We will chat about the sources of the city’s municipal water supply and how and why this has changed over the years. We will give a thought as to whether water supply from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation suffices, why / why not, where else we get our water from and how. And we will ponder what all this means for sustainable water use and water security in Ahmedabad.
What is the Sabarmati river?
All of us know the Sabarmati river, or do we? The Sabarmati is not just what we see from atop Nehru bridge or the riverfront walkways built by the Sabarmati Riverfront Project. This is a river we are talking about – starting from a source somewhere far away, winding through changing rural/urban landscapes, to a destination into the sea, also somewhere far away. Like many other rivers in India, it has been dammed. Unlike many other rivers, it artificially receives water from another river, the Narmada. So although we all know the Sabarmati, we also hardly know it. In fact, we know little about its course even through the city. In both the city walks, in the north and the south, we will try to get to know the city’s Sabarmati.
In the north, during the first walk, we will visit the Karai dam from which water is released from the Narmada canal into the Sabarmati. We will walk along the river here, observe life in and around it, and have a chat about how we see, know and understand the river in the city. In the south, during our second walk, we will visit the Vasna Barrage which ensures that a certain level of water remains in the central stretch of the Sabarmati river. The barrage is also the spot from where water from the river is pumped up into the Fatehwadi Canal which starts from here and ends at Nal Sarovar, providing water for irrigation to many villages along the way. We will also walk down to the riverbed on the southern side of the barrage and observe life in and around it, and try to figure out how and why the river ecology is so different here from in the north. Through this, we hope to better understand the river ecology and the different uses of the river; how this has changed over the years and why; whether this matters and if so, how.
Where does my (and Ahmedabad’s) waste go?
This is about the waste that goes down the drains after we’re done with using water for bathing, cooking, cleaning, and what not. What happens to it? A lot of it ends up in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s Pirana and Vasna sewage treatment plants. But unfortunately, not all of it does. The second walk, which starts at the Vasna Barrage, will take us to a sewage pumping station that is part of the Vasna sewage treatment project. We will walk along the riverbed here and explore the relation between the sewage and the river, and how waste produced by some ends up becoming part of the water consumed and used by others. The story of waste and the river becomes even more disturbing as we go further south. Ahmedabad, like many large Indian cities, has its fair share of industries, many of which are on its eastern edges. We end the second walk at the eastern end of the Gyaspur Bridge where a large amount of both sewage and untreated industrial effluent is being released into the river(bed). We will chat about how and why this might be happening, how it impacts the river ecology and the health of communities living around the river, and whether any of this should matter to us.
Renu is an urban researcher, currently part-time research fellow at the Centre for Urban Equity, CEPT University, Ahmedabad.
Dipani is an ecologist working on aquatic species and ecosystems. She is an adjunct researcher at James Cook University, Australia and a visiting faculty at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.
Mansi is an urban designer and a visiting faculty at CEPT University, Ahmedabad
Vrushti is an urban researcher, currently pursuing her doctorate in planning from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
The City Water Walks initiative aims to introduce the urban dweller to the basics of the local water infrastructure, affording an insight into where does water come from, what happens to it and where does it finally end up. Write to us at [email protected] if you’re interested in doing a Water Walk in your city. Details for the Ahmedabad Water Walks will be shared soon on this address: https://www.facebook.com/citywaterwalksahmedabad/