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Mumbai’s Mithi River Rejuvenation Misses Deadline – Again

Anuj PuriAnuj Puri, Chairman – ANAROCK Property Consultants

  • Seasonal swelling, eroded mangroves a major cause of flooding
  • Cleanup was supposed to start in June ’18

Despite the repeated claims of the Mithi River Development and Protection Authority (MRDPA) to make the river risk and stench-free within the next two years, the progress has been far from satisfactory.

The river continues to be the sewage disposal stream for Mumbaikars, and the clean-up act – promised to start from June 2018 onward – has yet to see the light of the day.

In what could be called a saving grace, the authorities have been successful in preventing 2005-like floods in the city, or else this laxity in the river clean-up would have been embarrassingly highlighted.

The authorities continue to pat themselves on the back for the deepening and widening of the river over the last decade at the cost of a whopping ₹1200 crore, which they claim has helped make the river ‘almost completely safe.’

The fact that it continues to be a toxic cesspool puts a big question mark on the ‘safety’ factor.

How Wetlands Affect Real Estate

Real estate is a major economic driver for any city, particularly a land-starved city like Mumbai. As in the rest of the world, the city’s realty market is driven primarily by economic factors, particularly those related to human productivity.

The existence of major workplace hubs in a given location not only attract more office buildings but also drives residential demand in and around these hubs.

However, real estate demand and values in a location are also influenced by a number of qualitative factors pertaining to its overall socioeconomic profile as well as the immediate natural environment which impact people living there.

Generally, real estate values are positively affected by the availability of green zones and water bodies such as the seashore, lakes and rivers. The influence zone of such environmental market drivers can be fairly wide, extending up to a radius of 2 kilometres from the green lung space or major water body.

Property values may increase by up to 6% if a development is within 150-200 meters from a green zone or water body, by around 4% if the distance is around 500 meters, and by around 2% if the distance is around 1500 meters.

Interestingly, property buyers are less likely to be attracted by housing options which are more than 150 meters from a water body. This is partly because they derive no immediate visual benefit from it.

The Downside

However, these numbers and sentiments only hold true if the water body is visually appealing, unpolluted and well-contained by safeguarding infrastructure.

If adequate water quality and safety exist, property prices can go up by between 12-15%. However, if the wetland in question is polluted and has proved to be unsafe due to flooding, the whole equation is turned on its head.

Natural disasters like flooding may be originally inherent or caused by human intervention such as over-development. However, pollution is always the result of irresponsible human activity.

Areas that have witnessed flooding in the past and/or present health risks due to pollution are prone to shedding their property values by anything between 5-12%. This dynamic is closely linked to psychological apprehensions, but the impact on the viability of real estate in such an area is verifiable.

In any case, river flooding and pollution are known to negatively impact real estate demand until verifiable and convincing measures are taken to reverse the damage.

While Mumbai presents a rather unique real estate scenario by virtue of its chronic and worsening shortage of developable land, it is certainly no accident that a polluted and flood-prone river like the Mithi tends to attract slums rather than genuinely aspirational real estate developments.

What Soured Mumbai’s Mithi River?

Mumbai’s 15-kilometre-long Mithi River AKA ‘Mahim River’ is formed by the confluence of tail-water discharges from the lakes in Powai and Vihar.

Its source of origin is the Vihar Lake, whose overflow mingles with that of Powai Lake a couple of kilometres further on and terminates in the Arabian Sea at Mahim Creek. Along the way, it flows past several key residential and industrial areas and developments.

‘Mithi’ means sweet in Hindi, but the story surrounding the Mithi river has increasingly soured over the decades. While it served as a key stormwater drain for Mumbai in earlier years, the Mithi has been gradually reduced to a dump yard for most locals who live along it.

Also, being seasonal, the Mithi River swells up during the monsoons and the mangrove plantations along the river have given way to concrete developments over the years. This is one of the major causes of floods in the city.

The highly polluted Mithi still presents considerable hazards to the areas around it. Until the late 1960s, the mangroves along the Mithin river’s bank acted as natural flood barriers. The gradual removal of these mangroves to make way for real estate development has not only increased the risk of flooding but also depleted the ground’s ability to absorb rainwater.

Theoretically, the Mithi river could be a major source of freshwater stock in a city which is increasingly dependent on water tankers which are causing groundwater levels to deplete rapidly. Nearly 97% of the potable water in Mumbai comes from outside the city.

The River Rejuvenation Program

Post the infamous Mumbai floods in 2005, the Mithi River’s middle width was increased to 25 meters.

Considerable propaganda accompanied the river widening initiative, predominantly around the claim that it has not flooded since 2006 and that this is ‘a good sign of progress’.

Estimated to cost Rs. 1,800 crore, the Mithi rejuvenation program has been politicized beyond being a mere clean-up undertaking. Massive funds have been repeatedly allotted by the BMC and MMRDA to clean, desilt and maintain the river.

The civic body has also floated tenders for the Phase 1 of the 4-phase Mithi River Water Quality Improvement Program.

The Status Today

The deadlines for the Mithi rejuvenation program are usually missed. The authorities have maintained that the river will be rejuvenated by 2020. Despite all the hype, there is much to be done.

The right use of technology, coupled with the political and administrative will, can certainly help achieve some of the targets, but this would still not solve the crux of the problem which makes the Mithi river’s ‘restoration’ is far more complex than it seems.

A Fortress of Slums

The river flows through various slum clusters including Asia’s largest slum – Dharavi. Almost 70% of the river banks are occupied by lakhs of slum units from where domestic waste and even open defecation waste flows into the river.

Moreover, several small-scale industries in these slum clusters pollute the river with their quite often toxic waste. The toxic chemical waste released by industries, along with the innumerable truckloads of debris being unloaded into the river, need to be severely dealt with.

Even before that, the slum dwellers around the river must be rehabilitated somewhere close to their source of livelihoods and yet away from the river. Unless they stop pouring waste into the river on a daily basis, the possibility of the river getting cleaned up is remote. The authorities need to create a zero-tolerance zone along both sides of the river.

Obviously, these slum dwellers, along with the agencies that control them and the industries they work in, represent a powerful vote bank. This can explain why the most important steps towards cleaning up the river – that of relocating slum dwellers and shutting down the polluting industries – represent an almost insurmountable challenge.

It is not an impossible task – but like everything else in Mumbai today, it can only happen with a concerted political will.

Success Story – The River Besos, Spain

We have precedents for successful river rejuvenation initiatives to learn from. The Besos in Barcelona’s metropolitan region is a classic example of an urban river that can be a role model for cities looking to rejuvenate their rivers.

Ironically, the Besos was known as the most contaminated river in Europe until the 1970s. However, from the mid-’90s onward, it has been in the process of rejuvenation via innovative techniques.

For instance, the authorities used bio-remediation techniques that cleansed the soil and pollutants discharged by industrial and residential units along the river – which are also the prime source of pollution in the Mithi river.

The Mithi river rejuvenation program can take its learning from the Besos project. Closer home, the Sabarmati river program is also a good example of determined political will turning the tide in favour of progress.

Summing up

Mumbai was literally reclaimed from the sea, and the struggle of ‘progress’ against nature has been raging ever since. It is unfortunate that the city’s war against water has been successful to such a terminal extent.

Only time will tell if there’s still hope for the Mithi river, or if the sweetness has gone out of it forever.

Image by Trinidade – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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