- Gomti river faces multiple challenges in Lucknow from sewage pollution to groundwater extraction.
- The Uttar Pradesh government planned riverfront development to deal with pollution but channelisation has adversely impacted the river ecology, says a recent study.
- From eight fish habitats in Gomti, only two can be found in the riverfront stretch.
“There was a time one could see a coin lying on the river bed. We would drink directly from the river while working here, till 15-20 years back. Today, you can’t even look at it,” says Siyaram Nishad glumly, while fencing his farm on the banks of Gomti river in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. “Dead fish routinely come to the surface but there is no end to dumping of the city’s wastewater. Gomti has no life now.” Nishad narrates a common grievance about many rivers in India which nourish cities and haul their waste back to the seas. In the state capital Lucknow, another dimension can be seen, of concrete taking over the water and insulating the city from its cure.
The riverfront development, initiated by the U.P. government between 2015 and 2017 in Lucknow, has not only obstructed the exchange of water between river and land but also reduced Gomti’s capacity to flush out the city’s waste. The project has changed hydraulic regimes leading to loss of river processes and ecosystems, said a study published last year by researchers from the Lucknow-based Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University.
Additionally, the Gomti river has eight types of fish habitats but the researchers found only two habitats in the stretch where the riverfront has been developed.
Gomti and Lucknow
Gomti is an alluvial river that originates from the lower Himalayas around 30 km east of Pilibhit town in Uttar Pradesh. Fed by rain and groundwater, it is an important source of water supply to cities of Lucknow, Jaunpur, and several towns and villages before it joins the Ganga near Varanasi, contributing 7.39 billion cubic metres of water every year to it.
In Lucknow, the river used to sustain several activities. Buffaloes, goats and horses shared the grazing space on its banks, fishers drew their nets, boatmen ferried tourists, dhobis (cloth washers) dug basins and affixed rocks, landless farmers tilled its floodplains and religious fairs supported vendors.
Monsoons would also occasionally lead to massive flooding that deposited loads of sand on its banks which locals would carry away on mules. In 1970s, embankments came up near the banks to prevent flood water from entering the city. The city, however, ballooned and entered the floodplains.
The total land area of the city increased by 60% from 1987 to 2005. “A large section of Gomti Nagar is located within the flood plain,” said V. K. Joshi, former director of Geological Survey of India, Lucknow. “The river which used to deposit fertile silt on its floodplains now finds no space to carry out its natural functions.” Over the years, silt has been deposited over the river bed which has risen by 1.5 metres compared to the level in 1960.
Embankments have also interrupted the natural drainage of the city and rainwater, instead of flowing towards the river, inundating the habitations. “If we get heavy rains, like the kind seen in Chennai in 2015, Lucknow will drown,” Joshi predicted.
Increase in population also led to greater extraction of water from the river and underground aquifers besides the greater amount of pollution with 27 drains dumping the city’s sewage into the river today. Groundwater levels declined to the extent of 0.5 m to 1.0 m per year in most of the city area due to increased tubewell and borewell connections since 2005, said a report by the Uttar Pradesh State Groundwater Department. On the other hand, dumping of municipal and construction waste on the river banks added to the pollution.
The Uttar Pradesh government responded to the pollution by initiating a Rs. 15 billion (Rs. 1,500 crore) riverfront development from April 2015 to March 2017. The riverfront development spans around 17 km of the river which includes a riverside park that has become a popular recreational spot for the city residents. The project is on hold now after allegations of financial irregularities in its execution cropped up.
However, ecologists believe the project has instead further degraded the river. “A heavily reinforced diaphragm wall was built along the river that deprived the Gomti of its catchment,” said Venkatesh Dutta, faculty at Department of Environmental Science, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, and lead researcher of the study while talking to Mongabay-India. “Considering that it is a river fed by groundwater, this 16 metre deep wall interrupts the base flow while channelisation and concretisation filled up wetlands and ditches which used to host a variety of plants and animals.”
Fish catch, livelihoods suffer
The channeling also affected the meandering character of the river in the 17 km stretch thus modifying sandbars and banks, all of which used to host wild animals and plants.
In 2013-14, eight fish species were reported downstream of the riverfront site. The same site reported only one species with a substantial reduction in catch per unit after the riverfront development project, the study said. The total fish biomass in the downstream sites was about 85 percent less than in the natural channel upstream, said the study.
Buddhu Nishad, a fisherman who also grows vegetables on a small patch along the river, said only small fish could be seen in the river now and varieties seen earlier like Rohu and Katla have become rare. “We used to earn Rs. 200-300 daily from selling fish. Now we make only around Rs. 100 and that too, not every day.”
“Due to absence of backwaters and sidearms with aquatic vegetation in a channelised river, the fish could only use the stabilised stony banks or shallow-slope gravel shorelines,” said Ajey Kumar Pathak, senior scientist at ICAR-National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources, who was part of the research team. “With the vertical diaphragm walls of the riverfront, however, the bank is gone and slope profile has also changed thus eliminating the potential fish habitat in the stretch.”
The interceptor drains meant to prevent sewage from going into the river remain incomplete thus ensuring no respite on pollution levels. “The parks and all look very good but nothing has improved for the river. Drains still dump wastewater into Gomti,” said Ranjeet Prasad, convener of Swachh Prayavaran Andolan Sena, a volunteer group that fishes out idols immersed in the river after Durga Punja and Ganesh Chaturthi, for their proper disposal on land. “Sewage treatment plants have been set up in the city, but they are not enough to deal with the huge amount of wastewater Lucknow generates.”
Kudiya Ghat, which lies upstream of the riverfront project, has been affected by dredging and construction of an earthen embankment for construction of a new bridge and laying of embankment walls. “All waste stagnates here and though devotees come here to pray and take a dip, what they see is scum all around,” said Jaal Singh while pushing his boat upstream in hope of a fish catch. “We have seen turtles and gharial in this river. Nowhere to be seen now.”
While dairy farmers have been shifted out of the city, washermen are also fearing eviction. “The government has asked us to move to a location around 10 kilometres from the city area. That place has no water supply and we have to get borewells,” said Mohammad Javed, who has been working at Kudiya Ghat since he was a teenager. “It is not feasible to work from a location that is so far because we have to regularly visit the markets to get orders and deliver washed clothes.” The number of washers has already gone down from 300 to around 60.
“Development of Kudiya Ghat has reduced the working space for us. The area was full of sand and wild vegetation earlier and it was easier to move around,” said Mohini Devi, who comes to the ghat with her family to wash shamianas (decorative tents). “Now paths have been paved and parks laid out with fences and plantations.”
Let it flow
Riverfront development has always gathered criticism from environmentalists who blame concretisation for degradation of river ecology, including habitat of wildlife and biodiversity. Adverse social impact is also evident as several families staying near the river or earning a livelihood through various activities are displaced to favour real estate development.
In India, the concept of riverfront development was popularised with Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, which involved the construction of a concrete embankment wall for around 10 km. Water from the main Narmada canal was diverted into Sabarmati. Developers have hailed it as a role model for many rivers in India on the lines of the Thames river in London and Seine in France. Several projects took off thereafter, including Godavari Riverfront Development at Nanded in Maharashtra, Patna Riverfront Development Project on Ganga and development of Gomti riverfront in Lucknow, besides similar development proposals for other rivers across India.
“Riverfront development in India is focussed on taming the river and exploiting its land for commercial gains whereas other countries have already moved on to ecological designs which work around the river, not against it,” said Veena Srinivasan who leads the Water, Land and Society Programme at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. “The problem is we have kept disciplines of engineering and ecology separate and thus lack an integrated approach to infrastructure development.”
In Netherlands, such an integrated approach has been adopted in the Room for the River programme. It involves the relocation of embankments to let Rhine river reclaim its floodplains. A new channel, dug up to divert flood water, will create an island that will host gardens and other recreational spaces. A floating restaurant has also been proposed on the river.
Gomti riverfront, on the other hand, was an exercise in land reclamation. “An amount of Rs. 1,500 crore was earmarked for the first phase of the project. It completely ignored the technical report submitted by IIT Roorkee suggesting minimum disturbance to the channel,” said senior journalist Mohammad Tariq Khan who has been writing about the issue for several years. The 71-page technical report was submitted to Lucknow Development Authority (LDA) in 2013 when the authority was thinking of replicating the Sabarmati model. LDA dropped the plan later and the irrigation department picked it up but without considering suggestions of the technical report.
The report had recommended that river width not be reduced beyond 250 metres. “A 25 m wide pucca promenade at a natural surface level of the river may be developed along both the banks within 250 m width. A width of 200 m of the river shall be kept mobile for facilitation of bed aggradation and degradation,” it said.
The project design, however, straitjacketed Gomti. “River floodplain width was restricted to 240 m out of 450 m and clear waterway to 100–125 m from the previous 250 m to reclaim about 200 hectares of land upstream and downstream of Gomti barrage,” said Dutta.
The authorities, however, deny any negative impact of the project on river ecology. “We have not come across any adverse report on the riverfront development project on Gomti,” said V. K. Rathi, head of irrigation department, Lucknow. “We will study the research findings and take corrective measures if required.”
The study led by Dutta recommends restoration of river banks and channel connectivity in a phased manner by removal of diaphragm wall and stabilisation of bank vegetation in the long run. “Eﬀorts should be on restoring immediate river corridors such as wetlands and seasonal ditches that can improve base ﬂows to the river,” it said.
Pollution can be addressed through rejuvenation of the city’s smaller water bodies like lakes and ponds which recharge groundwater and hence feed Gomti during the non-monsoon season. According to the city development plan (August 2006), Lucknow had 846 tanks and ponds, but most of them are under stress. A CAG audit report, released in 2011, mentioned that the majority of these could not be found due to land reclamation. Moti Jheel and Butler Palace Lake were also found to be cesspools of garbage and sewage. “Colonies have been built on most of the water bodies that could replenish the river, leaving little scope for rejuvenation,” said Joshi. “Most of us living in new areas of Lucknow have houses built on ponds and lakes and these areas face flooding every monsoon.”
Water has a strong memory. It can easily find its old home. Gomti river will also recover its glory if allowed to flow unfettered.
Dutta V., et al. (2018). Impact of river channelisation and riverfront development on fluvial habitat: evidence from Gomti River, a tributary of Ganges, India. Environmental Sustainability. 1-18. Doi 10.1007/s42398-018-0016-0.