Ahmedabad City WaterWalks – Of Water, Birds and Beings

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

Maps and graphics by Mansi Shah. Flora identification by Pratiksha Patel and Santosh Yadav

The Ahmedabad Water Walks were hosted in October 2016

Riverbank in August 2016
Riverbank in August 2016

 

It was a pleasant coincidence when Veditum’s invitation for participation in their City Water Walks Initiative reached us. As ecologists and urban planners, the river had already etched thought patterns in our individual minds. Veditum brought our inquiries and thoughts together as we set out to organize a Water Walk along the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad.

Feeling the need to explore the Sabarmati river across the urban-rural realm, our Water Walk turned into two walks, one at each end of the river journeying north-to-south through Ahmedabad city. These are also contrasting stretches of the river. The walk to the south, which was the subject of an earlier post (http://veditum.org/editorial/ahmedabad-city-water-walks-sabarmati-beyond-the-barrage/), took us beyond the Vasna Barrage, which is also just beyond the southern end of the Sabarmati Riverfront Project. The project, begun in 2003, has reclaimed land from both banks of the river along an 11-km stretch, which is now being developed for residential, commercial and leisure purposes. The walk to the north, which is the subject of this post, took us to the area where the Narmada canal crosses the Sabarmati river. This is 10 kms north of the northern end of the Riverfront Project. Here, the topography of the river is still animated with ravines and the riparian zone is relatively virgin with glimpses of wild forest flora surprising someone who looks. Even though the water we see entering the city from here on is coming from the Narmada canal, a curious mind cannot help but wonder what changes and mysteries exist along the Sabarmati in the distant north. Along the walk, from the riverbed to the Karai Gate to the Narmada canal, we explored the landscape while also discussing the question of ‘where does Ahmedabad get its water from?’

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Snippets from this walk, which we did as a Recee in August 2016 and then with three different groups – Dipani’s CEPT University students in the monsoons, the folks who registered for the City Water Walk initiative in October 2016, and urban fellows of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore, in November 2016 – are described below. Enjoy, and send in your thoughts and questions to leherthewaterinitiative@gmail.com

Ever-changing river landscapes

As we crossed west-to-east on the S.P. Ring Road bridge we saw the cross-section of the landscape we were about to explore. Strong, tall sand-banks straddled the river and a green belt along and above it welcomed us. To reach the river below us, we walked across a field of Peristrophe, Cassia, Commelina Crotalaria, Tridax, and Indigofera shrubs amongst many others, with scattered Neem, Mango and Babool trees. As we walked down a path through scrub forest, the flora was dominated by Balanites, along with Ehretia, Ziziphus, Cordia, Capparis, Vajradanti and Kirgenalia till we reached the banks of the river south of the bridge. The butterfly attracting but invasive Lantana that doesn’t allow any new species to regenerate in its shade, and lacks understory, was also present. Here, the dominant species was easily the Gando Baaval (Prosopis juliflora). Bulbuls, White eyes, Parakeets, Warblers, Tailor birds, Sunbirds, Green pigeons, Mynas, Babblers, a few species of butterflies and the good old squirrels kept us company on the way down.

The river/bed here has not been channelized as it has been in the 11-km stretch of the river developed under the Sabarmati Riverfront Project. The river therefore charters a meandering course through the riverbed’s natural topography. During our August ‘monsoon’ recee, the waters along the shore here were full of lilies and lotus, growing profusely in the shallow expanse. Wild mushrooms found their corners and niches along with Nodiflora, Grangea, and Marsiliea shrubs.The walls of the vertical sand banks were layered with carpets of sumptuous moss and a whole range of verdant creepers kept the walls intact. During our October waterwalk, things were different. The field we walked through had dried and some of the shrubs were flowering. The moss lay dormant and the lilies and lotus were no more to be seen on the waters’ surface. Instead the shores were dominated by Scirpus sedges and scattered shrubs – Datura, Calotropis, Ipomea, Solanum, amongst a few others – that had survived after the monsoons. The river chartered a narrower course than during the monsoon, creating larger islands. Every time we did this walk, we found that the flora and the space use were changing with the change in water level and flow. This seasonally changing landscape offers diversity and a joy in experiencing change; this is rather in contrast to the uniform monotonous landscape of the riverfront ‘developed’further south under the project. River terns, swifts, Pariah kites, Brahminy kites, kingfishers, egrets, herons, ibis, Purple moorhens, and storks were some of the birds observed along this stretch, unlike the few crows, mynas and pariah kites in the ‘developed’ river front in the city. Several of Dipani’s students said during their class by the river “This is what we wish we had in the heart of Ahmedabad city too. If only we had designed the riverfront differently.”

The natural river topography also allows for the use of the riverbanks and the island-like grassy landforms punctuating the river’s flow by grazing cows and goats, while their herders rest along the banks. Someone asked if these natural spaces along the river could be co-managed and protected to avoid losing them to ‘development’ projects as well as kept safe from garbage.

Gando baaval

As we absorbed our surroundings, some of the walk participants asked about the spread of the gando baaval (Prosopis juliflora). We walked them through the history of how this exotic plant (native to south and central America’s) had first been brought to India in the 1870s by the British, and then later post independence purposively planted by the Indian government given its ability to spread and create a green belt so fast.

Prosopis juliflora or Gando Baaval along the banks
Prosopis juliflora or Gando Baaval along the banks

The story of Prosopis is rather conflicting – on the one hand, it greens, its pods are a good source of fodder, and it is burnt to produce charcoal; on the other hand, its leaves and bark are not palatable as fodder, and very little can grow in areas where Prosopis has taken over, diminishing not only biodiversity, but also the survival of native plants that were sources of food, fodder, medicine, fuel, building material and shade. Upon being asked whether it was a lost battle, we discussed examples where Prosopis has been successfully removed – either the way the native people of Kutch do so, by cutting the tree at ground level; or painstakingly removed from root as done at Rao Jodha Park in Jodhpur. So yes, there has been success and native flora has returned in locations where Prosopis has been removed. Many of our participants were impressed enough and one even invited us to his land in Dholka (a town in Ahmedabad district) requesting a re-wilding program there.

The ecology of non-perennial rivers

As we walked north along the riverbed, under the S.P. Ring Road bridge, towards the feeder canal that brings water from the Narmada Canal into the Sabarmati, we pondered this diversion of Narmada water by the Gujarat government since 2002. After all, the Narmada canal is part of the Sardar Sarovar dam project whose construction by the Gujarat government had been justified as necessary to bring water to the farmers of Kutch and other water-deprived areas of Gujarat. We debated the key reason for this diversion, which was that the 11-km stretch of the river under the Sabarmati Riverfront Project was to have water all year round. On observing this immense flow of water from the feeder canal into the Sabarmati riverbed, one of Dipani’s students had wittily remarked: “So our riverfront should be called the Narmada Riverfront as the water is not from the Sabarmati at all.”

Interestingly, during our readings in preparation for the walks, we came across the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency (Volume VI. Government Central Press 1880) that says that the Sabarmati at the time flowed throughout the year into the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) after travelling almost 200 miles south, suggesting that the Sabarmati might have been a perennial river 125 years ago. As human habitations expanded along the river, surface water extraction started, along with the damming of the river in Rajasthan, and then groundwater extraction, the river lost its lasting characteristic. Certainly, the Sabarmati has not been a perennial river for more than several decades now. One of the criticisms of the diversion of Narmada water has been that the Sabarmati river was not a perennial river, and therefore the imagination of the river that the Riverfront Project rests on is flawed.

Riverbed in October 2016 with the backdrop of dominating Prosopis juliflora
Riverbed in October 2016 with the backdrop of dominating Prosopis juliflora

In this context, we had an interesting discussion about how the Riverfront Project should have imagined the river. Alka, one of the walk participants, felt that our imagination of a river as ideally being full of water all the time should be revisited, and that we should try to understand dry river ecologies too. Another walk participant did not entirely agree, feeling that a focus on dry river ecology could normalize the drying up of rivers downstream, discrediting the importance of undammed rivers; this perspective came from her being of the opinion that the flow of a river should never be obstructed. Nonetheless, Alka’s suggestion did drive home the point that riverfront projects (on the Sabarmati or any other river) need to consciously engage with river ecology. This would also include an appreciation of how a riverbed plays different roles in the city’s character over different seasons.

Remnants of wilderness along the banks of the Feeder canal

A fisherman cast-netting near the feeder canal
A fisherman cast-netting near the feeder canal

On our way to the feeder canal we met some fishers – members of the Bhoi community – using cast nets. They showed us their meagre catch and told us how they were not allowed any longer to fish in the channelized part of the river in the city. They had also been relocated as a result of the Riverfront Project from their homes by the river to different resettlement sites, and now had to travel much more to get their daily catch of fish to sell at the market.

During our recee we had witnessed the riverbank being used for a religious ceremony, and much of the shore here was littered with various ceremonious objects at the time as well as in our subsequent Water Walks. We were unsettled by this profusion of waste and wondered how the people partaking in the ceremonies and disposing the waste in the river could be engaged, if at all, in taking care of the river better.

Luckily, our walk along the riverbed did not end with this disturbing sight of waste as Mansi and Vishal, two of the walkers, decided to take us on a hike along the side of the feeder canal. We made our way along a narrow trail and some of us walked almost till the Karai Gate.

View from the trail along the feeder canal
View from the trail along the feeder canal
View of the Karai Gate from the trail along the feeder canal
View of the Karai Gate from the trail along the feeder canal

On the way we came across several wild plants that included the surprise of the whitish Bui or desert cotton; the lovely yellow flowers of the geedar tambaku, and little white flowers of the Utangan or the creeping Blepharis. This stretch had been cut through a continuous landscape for constructing the feeder canal and still had the remnants of the wild riparian flora that existed here before. Some of the walkers carefully explored the bushes and the butterflies in the area. Discussions revolved around landscape alterations; differences between disturbed, partially disturbed and undisturbed ecosystems; and the source and utility of the water gushing past. This release of water from the Narmada canal into the Sabarmati riverbed via the feeder canal is controlled at the Sardar Sarovar Nigam office located nearby. This office also regulates the siphoning of the Narmada canal water from below the Sabarmati riverbed as the canal continues further west.

We walked back along the trail to the waste-strewn area and from there took another route to return to the S.P. Ring Road. This took us along farmlands lined with Peelu, Kanjhi, Jamun and Neem trees. We did not see anyone in the farmlands to talk to but hope that in a future walk we would be able to understand something of this agricultural landscape. At the Ring Road, we sat by the chai kitli under a neem tree and tried to grasp water and the river, not just as a resource for extraction, but as a source of all kinds of life.

Ahmedabad’s water footprint: Where does the city’s water come from?

Along the Narmada Canal, near the new water pipeline laid to the Kotarpur Water Treatment Plant
Along the Narmada Canal, near the new water pipeline laid to the Kotarpur Water Treatment Plant

From the chai kitli we had to drive to the Narmada canal where our walk ended with a discussion of the data we had collated on the current water sources for Ahmedabad and how these sources have changed since the 1950s. With surface water from the Sabarmati River becoming inadequate to meeting the rising demands of the growing city, groundwater started to become a source of municipal water supply for Ahmedabad in the late-1950s. By the 1970s, 87 per cent of the water supplied by the city government was groundwater. Following this, attempts were made by the city government to shift away from such an overwhelming reliance on groundwater. After the construction of the Vasna Barrage downstream and the Dharoi Dam upstream in the 1970s, the city government tried to tap into the Sabarmati River waters released from the dam, but this proved inadequate. It then developed the Raska Wier Water Supply Project around the year 2000 to bring in water from the Mahi River. The Mahi, popularly known as Mahisagar because of the vastness of the river, starts in the Vindhya range in Madhya Pradesh, flows through Rajasthan and then into Gujarat, where it passes north of Vadodara city as it makes its way into the Gulf of Khambhat (Mahi has been dammed, both in Rajasthan and in Gujarat). But the water obtained from the Mahi was inadequate. Over the next several years, various infrastructures were developed to bring water from the Narmada canal. By 2010, surface water – mainly Narmada water – comprised of 90 per cent of the water supplied by the city government in Ahmedabad. We discussed this shifting ‘water footprint’ of Ahmedabad and how sustainable it is, as well as how the city could reduce its water footprint by better managing its local water sources (including its talavs / lakes, many of which have been filled up over the years as development has engulfed them) and implementing rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharging as well as grey water recycling.

We also discussed the use of Narmada water for Ahmedabad in the larger context of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the conflicts and injustice it has created, as well as the larger Gujarat-wide project under which the city receives Narmada water – the Sardar Sarovar Canal Based Drinking Water Supply Project, which is the biggest drinking water supply project in the world (the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd website states that it aims to cover 75 per cent of Gujarat’s population).

Coverage of the Sardar Sarovar Canal Based Drinking Water Supply Project
Coverage of the Sardar Sarovar Canal Based Drinking Water Supply Project

Moreover, the shift to surface water sources in municipal water supply refers, well, only to municipal water supply. We have no data on the amount of water extracted from the hundreds of private bore-wells in the city and its share in relation to the amount of water supplied by the city government. In this context, we also do not know to what extent Ahmedabad’s dependence on groundwater has actually decreased with the municipal supply shifting to surface water sources since it seems like we continue to extract copious amounts of groundwater privately. Many of the walk participants talked about the private bore-wells in their housing societies. We discussed the need for accountability of the government which has not formulated or adequately implemented any regulations on groundwater extraction, rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling as well as the necessity for increasing citizen awareness on these matters.

The range of discussions spurred by the walk revealed to us the crucial importance of getting out there and personally experiencing and engaging with the water landscapes around us. The walk has also helped some of us in clarifying the directions in which we would personally like to prioritise our efforts around water – from pursuing water harvesting and groundwater recharging in our homes to engaging in policy advocacy around responsible use and management of water resources at the city-level. For the children who came along with us, we hope that the magic that water holds, to restore smiles and revive wilderness so close to home, stays with them for a while.

 

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