Ahmedabad City WaterWalks – Sabarmati beyond the Barrage

(This is a guest blog by Vrushti Mawani with inputs from Renu Desai, Dipani Sutaria & Mansi Shah, who are taking the lead for the Ahmedabad leg of our City Water Walks initiative.)

Maps by Mansi Shah

The Ahmedabad Water Walks were hosted in October 2016

Ahmedabad’s history, including its settlement as a ‘city’ in the early 15th century, is inextricably related to the Sabarmati. Originating from the Aravalli ranges of Udaipur, Rajasthan, the Sabarmati flows through Ahmedabad and meets the Arabian Sea at the Gulf of Khambhat. A seasonal river, it was Ahmedabad’s primary source of water for agricultural, domestic, and other uses and many communities depended on it for centuries. Over the last five decades, the river has been dammed at a few places – the Dharoi dam in North Gujarat being the most significant of these – and the riverbed ecology and utility have changed significantly as a result.
With growing urbanization and industrialization (starting with the city’s textile mills, and then its pharmaceutical and chemical industries), the Sabarmati riverbed has become the primary site for the city’s wastewater discharge. It has now been playing this role for decades ; a role that very few people living in the city have known about. We chose to walk along the southern part of the Sabarmati riverbed to better understand processes and practices of wastewater discharge in this part of the city, what this means for the Sabarmati as it leaves Ahmedabad, and what it means for the communities that live alongside this part of the river.

 

We started our walk at the Vasna Barrage at the southern end of the Sabarmati riverfront project that has been under implementation since 2003. From here, our group of 20-odd residents from Ahmedabad made our way to a sewage pumping station adjoining the barrage, going on to farms further south along the Sabarmati riverbed that use wastewater for irrigation, then to the Pirana sewage treatment plant, and ending our walk near Gyaspur bridge.

Vasna Barrage

The Vasna barrage was built in 1976 by the Government of Gujarat. While the initial purpose of the barrage might have been controlled irrigation, according to a recently prepared (undated) document on the barrage called, “Salient Features of Wasna Barrage,” the primary purpose of the barrage is to produce “ponding… in Sabarmati river upstream of Vasna Barrage (so that) the Ahmedabad city can enjoy the beauty and benefits of river front.1. The Fatehwadi Canal diverts water from here for irrigation to villages and towns south and southwest of Ahmedabad and has been operational since the time the barrage was built. In times of floods or heavy rains in the Sabarmati watershed areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat, or at specific periods for flushing the river bed, the barrage releases water downstream into the Sabarmati riverbed. For the most part however, the barrage gates remain closed – for purposes of controlled irrigation, and “ponding”.

Since over a decade, the waters received and stored at the barrage are mainly from the Narmada and not the Sabarmati. This is part of the larger story of most of the surface water flowing through Ahmedabad since 2006 being Narmada waters. “Before the Narmada started flowing through the city,” the caretaker at the barrage told us, “water levels in the reservoir and the Fatehwadi canal used to be much lower. Since the barrage started receiving Narmada waters, it has become standard practice to maintain water in the reservoir at 133 ft and in the Fatehwadi canal at 6 ft. If water in the reservoir rises above the 133 ft level, the barrage gates are opened and water is released downstream into the Sabarmati riverbed. A siren is sounded out to alert people downstream of the imminent water release.”

Vasna Barrage

How did this make us feel about the barrage?

Stepping up to the wall holding the Narmada waters in, we tried to wrap our heads around the many roles that the barrage performs for the city; as urban infrastructure that helps direct Narmada waters to villages and towns south of Ahmedabad; as usually-shut gates at the southern end of the Sabarmati riverfront project that help ensure a perennially full riverfront; and, simultaneously, as gates responsible for keeping the Sabarmati past the barrage mostly dry…

Beyond the barrage gates

Walking out of the barrage gates and down to the riverbed south of the barrage, we found an outlet emptying untreated sewage into the riverbed. Puzzled by this, especially since the Vasna sewage pumping station was located right above this outlet, we walked back up from the riverbed to the pumping station and found two youth manning the facility on behalf of the contractor to whom this task has been outsourced by the municipal authorities.

Point of sewage discharge near the barrage

Why is untreated sewage being released into the riverbed when there is a pumping station right here ?” we asked. “The capacity of the pumping station is too small to handle all the sewage that comes here. So the extra sewage is emptied into the river through a bypass line,” they told us.

How does this work?” we wondered. “Surely there must be daily and seasonal variations in the amount of sewage + stormwater received by the facility. Do such variations affect how much sewage is emptied into the riverbed? Is all sewage first received by the pumping station and the bypass line opened only once a certain critical level of sewage has been reached inside the pumping station ?

In response to these questions, the boys led us to a well-like structure outside the main pumping station facility. On peering down, we saw two lines bringing a mix of stormwater and sewage from parts of the city that this pumping station is meant to serve. One line turned towards the pumping station, while the other continued on straight to the river. One of the boys told us that the two lines were connected before this bifurcation point. In theory, the bypass line should be used only when the volume of sewage + stormwater coming to the sewage pumping station exceeds the capacity of the facility. However, here what we had found was that the bypass line was constantly in use. There seemed to be no mechanism for controlling the flow through the bypass line – or perhaps there was a mechanism but it was not being used.

Farming further downstream along the riverbed

Sufficiently unsettled, we continued on. Our next stop, further down south along the Fatehwadi canal, was a farm which used the city’s wastewater released into the Sabarmati for irrigation1. The history of farms irrigated using wastewater in Ahmedabad goes back to 1955 when the AMC (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation) leased 660 hectares of land to 260 farmers in peri-urban areas, allowing these farmers to use wastewater disposed by the city for irrigating their crops. Today, while the land area occupied by such farms has shrunk to 220 hectares and the arrangement between the AMC and the farmers has changed from leasehold to ownership, these farms continue to use wastewater (likely mixed with other toxic pollutants) from the river for farming. Speaking to the farmer who owned the farm we had stopped at, we found out that jowar was being grown here, and wheat would be next.

Farms alongside the Fatehwadi canal irrigated by wastewater

Where do you get water to grow your crops?” we asked. “I pull it up from the river,” he said. “It is all dirty water but what can I do ? My field is so close to the Fatehwadi canal. Yet I don’t get any water from it. None of the fields along this stretch do.”

Have the state irrigation department or the municipal authorities thought about how best to provide water for agriculture to these farmers today? we wondered, knowing that answering this would be far from straightforward.

Curious about how water was pumped up from the riverbed to these fields, we walked down to the riverbed along a path next to this farm. Looking up at the farms from the riverbed, we saw a series of contraptions lined up for pulling water out of the river and pumping it up. We wondered if the water was only mixed with sewage or also had other toxic pollutants like the ones we knew we were going to encounter further south from here.

Pulling water from the riverbed up into the farm

Pirana Sewage Treatment Plant

Pirana STP

Our next stop was the Pirana Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) on the eastern side of the river. This STP houses two treatment plants using two different technologies; an ASP (Activate Sludge Process) type with a capacity to treat 60 MLD (million litres per day) of sewage and a UASB (Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket) type with a capacity to treat 108 MLD of sewage.

What does this mean for the city though? we thought.

We felt like we needed to think about these volumes contextually, and tried to find information about city-wide sewage generation, treatment, etc. Through our searches, we found some statistics published by the AMC on the total sewage generated by the city, the capacities of the city’s STPs and the technologies used by them.

Statistics on sewage (generation, network, pumping and treatment capacity, etc) in Ahmedabad – from AMC, 2013

But these statistics left us puzzled.

If treatment capacity of the city’s STPs exceeds total sewage generated, why then is a significant amount of sewage being released untreated into the riverbed past the Vasna barrage? The sewage arrives at the pumping stations. So arguably it isn’t a problem with insufficient sewage network. Where then is the gap ? Is the capacity of sewage pumping stations the problem?” we asked ourselves.

The environmental engineer showing us around the 60 MLD plant told us that this particular plant was built primarily to treat wastewater from the Sabarmati riverfront project areas, and that its treatment efficiency was quite high because of the nature of wastewater received (without too much garbage), as well as its volume (not too high). Note that large volumes of sewage were dumped for decades into the Sabarmati river until new sewage and stormwater networks and pumping stations were constructed under the Sabarmati riverfront project. Today, the riverfront project areas do not dump sewage into the river, at least not in the stretch of the river covered under the project. However, as we saw on our walk, there are still some sewage outlets in the south beyond the barrage that dump untreated sewage into the river.

We are, in fact, struck by the contrast of seeing relatively clean river water north of the Vasna Barrage and a river of wastewater south of the Vasna Barrage. It made us wonder how is it that Sabarmati riverfront project so clearly imagined the Sabarmati river to be only that which lies north of the Vasna Barrage. How is it that urban planners and designers are able to draw these rigid boundaries around “project areas” without any consideration of the ways in which these areas are part of broader ecologies?

Where is the treated wastewater from this STP released ?” we asked this engineer. “One kilometer away, into the river” was his ambiguous answer. He followed this by saying that he is unaware of the exact location of release since he is concerned only with operations internal to the STP. “Do you know if any untreated sewage is still being released into the river south of the barrage ?” we asked. “No it is not,” he said. “Industrial wastewater is still released into the riverbed further down south, but not untreated sewage. All sewage generated gets treated.

Gyaspur Bridge

Industrial effluent release point at Gyaspur bridge

The Gyaspur bridge is a short distance away from the Pirana STP and is the point where sewage and industrial effluents have been released into the Sabarmati riverbed for over a decade. Industrial effluent likely started being released into the river soon after 2000, which is when the mega pipeline was laid to receive and transport treated effluent from the Naroda, Odhav and Vatva industrial estates across Ahmedabad and discharge it into the river. As is apparent from the photographs however, the effluent that is released isn’t treated properly at all.

We had known this before. In our secondary searches on city-wide industrial pollution, especially on the pollution of our water resources, we had come across some distressing data.

Image : Mapping the impact of industrial pollution in Ahmedabad on the Sabarmati : compiled from Mudrakartha, et al, 2006 and GPCB Report, 2010

But knowing about the release of toxic effluents and untreated sewage at this point didn’t lessen the shock we felt seeing it and smelling it. The water in the river was an opaque black and brown with tinges of purple and the overwhelming fumes of effluent combined with the stench of the sewage made it impossible to stand here for more than a few minutes. Yet, there were no signboards or notices regarding public safety or hazards anywhere in the area.

A couple of men, noticing our large group, walked over to us. We asked them if they knew why effluent and sewage continued to the released at this point since so many years. They told us that their community – residents of Gyaspur village – had been facing severe health and economic problems since the last 18 years or so as a result of the indiscriminate release of industrial effluents and sewage into the river next to their lands. With 1500 – 2000 families living here, Gyaspur had been home to prime agricultural lands until not too long ago. Cauliflower, cabbage and other vegetables grown in Gyaspur would fetch the highest prices at the Jamalpur vegetable market in Ahmedabad. With the start of effluent release into the river however, these once-fertile lands have been turning barren.

Moreover, Gyaspur does not have municipal water connections. Families access water for domestic use primarily from individual borewells. The men told us that effluent from the river has permeated their groundwater and water drawn from borewells bears significant traces of toxic chemicals. Consuming this water has meant serious damage to Gyaspur’s residents. Water-borne diseases like jaundice are common in their community as a result, in addition to more chronic ailments like muscle and joint pains, gastric troubles and skin diseases.

The water in the riverbed was found to be a purple-black at another visit a few weeks later

Have there had been any community-level efforts to purify water?”, we asked. “Most families in our village are too poor to invest in RO machines or any other water treatment facilities,” they said.

It was also evident that this toxicity had damaged the river ecology – we wondered about the impacts on the fish population (probably none exists close to this effluent release point?), on the cows and buffaloes that drink or bathe in the river water downstream from here, and the non-cultivated flora along the river’s edges.

What did knowing all this mean for us?

While we now knew a little bit more about how wastewater was discharged in the southern parts of Ahmedabad, what this meant for the Sabarmati as it left the city, and what it meant for communities living along this stretch of the Sabarmati riverbed, everything we had seen, heard, read, and felt, meant that we had more questions now than we had started with. Questions ranging from, “Why is so much untreated sewage being released into the river when the city has technology-intensive STPs of such a high capacity?”, “If capacities of pumping stations are the problem, then how difficult is it to increase these capacities when the city seems to have a rather large budget for building municipal infrastructure ?” to “Why don’t the farmers downstream from the barrage have better water access to irrigate their crops?”, to “Why are the requirements for industries to carry out effluent treatment before releasing their waste into the mega-pipeline not being enforced?”, to “How much wastewater do I produce and to what end?” and many more.

It seems like answering these will require many more water walks…

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References

AMC, 2013 : Water Supply and Sanitation in Ahmedabad City : available online at http://icrier.org/pdf/ahemadbad_water.pdf

GPCB Report, 2010 : Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Abatement Action Plan Vatva Industrial Cluster‐ Gujarat : available online at cpcb.nic.in/divisionsofheadoffice/ess/F_VATVA.pdf

Gupte, 2011 : Section on Ahmedabad : in ‘Ground Water Scenario in Major Cities of India’, Report by Central Ground Water Board, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India : available online at www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/GW-Senarioin%20cities-May2011.pdf

Prajapati, 2014 : Ecological evaluation of water of Sabarmati, Ahmedabad : The Asian Journal of Animal Science : Vol 9, No. 1 ; 38-42

Mudrakartha, 2006 : Unclogging the Khari River: Stakeholders Come Together to Halt Pollution : Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 7 : 587-590

Maheshwari, 2016 : Impact of Industrial Estates on Water Resources : International Journal of Environmental Science and Development, Vol. 7, No. 12 : 933 – 939

Shah, 2013 : Study of Water Quality of River Sabarmati and its Tributaries : Asian Resonance, Vol. 2, No., 3 : 108 – 114

1  We were given this report by an on-duty officer during our August recee.

A very insightful report on sewage farming in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat, put together by People in Centre, can be found here

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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/

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