People power to clean up Pune river, bit by bit

Himanshu Nitnaware | Dec 1, 2020 | 5 min read

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One of the five major rivers originating from Pune district, Mutha was once known for its cleanliness. However, it has lost its glory because of increasing water pollution and a lack of conservation efforts from the authorities. To address this issue, a group of volunteers has been trying to clean up the banks of the river and also improve the ecosystem of the water body. 

Started in 2017 with three volunteers of the NGO Jeevitnadi, the group would clean small stretches of the river every week. Now, it has evolved into a wetland conservation project and has volunteers from different walks of life.

Aditi Deodhar, founder-director of Jeevitnadi, stated that during their Sunday clean-up drives, they identified two streams flowing into the river that carried the sewage water. As the flow contained polluted and sewage water, the river started giving off a foul smell and the local residents had then turned it into a dumping ground, she added. The natural streams too were seen clogged at places, changes in topology owing to anthropogenic (human-caused) interventions and waste matter, she mentioned. 

Roping in experts As the NGO tried to amp up the conservation efforts, they roped in Oikos and Lemnion Green Solutions (LGS), both working in the environmental sector.

Ketaki Ghate, one of the founders and managing directors at Oikos, said the first task towards the effort was to separate the sewage water from a clean source of water coming from natural spring. “That is achieved by placing stones in the area and creating a topology. The water flow, the mapping of small pools and other technical know-how was provided,” she said.

Planning the water flow was conducted in a way so that it flows topographically and ensuring enough oxygen gets mixed with water, she added. LGS co-founders Prasanna Jogdeo and Pooja Tendulkar provided the changes required in topology and designed the in-stream interventions, which regulated the water flow. A few structural changes were required to ensure that water was retained in some areas, and it benefitted the aquatic ecology, increased the dissolved oxygen and also facilitated better nutrient uptake by plants, stated Jogdeo.

He added that the flow was channelised using natural material in the surrounding area like rocks, and soil. To treat the water at the source, wetland plants like typha, cattails, sedges, canna, asclepius (milkweed) and colocasia, and other aquatic plants like azolla and duckweed were planted, he mentioned.

Local participation As the project moved forward, many locals got involved in the cause.

“My daughter Shalmali was 12 when we were passing through the bridge above the Mutha river. She complained about the people throwing waste in the river and insisted that she prevent them from polluting it,” said Sachin Nalawade, her father, who has a pest control business.

But soon, Shalmali realised only a few would listen to her when she prevented them from throwing waste into the river. “A social media search helped her know about the initiative and join the group of volunteers. Shalmali has been instrumental in roping her friends as volunteers,” he added. Because of his daughter, Sachin too joined as a volunteer. 

Ashwini Bhilare-Patil, who is a homemaker, said she was looking for some nature conservation cause on Facebook and got connected with some volunteers working on the Ramnadi river water stretch. Narrating her journey, she said the volunteers directed her to the Mutha river stretch as it was near her residence. She started cleaning the water with the help of stones and rocks each Sunday, she stated. 

“During the process, I have learnt what plants are required, what dissolved oxygen means, what are bioindicators and other aspects of conservation. Little do we know the damage we are causing to nature. We fail to realise that we are dependent on nature,” she stated.

Ashwini stated that they have documented birds like red avadavat, white-breasted waterhen, pale-billed flowerpecker and scaly-breasted mania, which are bioindicators for good water. Ashwini added that snake-like checkered keelback, frogs, crabs and other creatures have become regular and are thriving in the area. 

The movement evolved to create lateral leadership in the group. 

A Pune resident, Adish Barve, who works as a design engineer, led the initiative to clean the second stream, which is adjacent to the first stream. “The flow of the water from the canal in the stream is like a waterfall with sewage and polluted water. In 2019, we decided to replicate the same success with the other stream,” he added.

Adish said the two wetland rejuvenating systems helped to preserve and create a haven for biodiversity around.

However, the ecosystem still needs some maintenance works to ensure its sustainability, stated Jeevatnadi’s Deodhar. Sometimes the algae content increases, which leads to an increase in oxygen content, affecting the overall plant health, she explained. Some people still dump waste in the streams and that’s why it needs cleaning, she added. The floods during the monsoon often wash away some plants and need attention, but the majority of the structure has sustained and will become self-sustainable, mentioned Deodhar.

Changed perception The three years of efforts have now started showing results. The streams are providing cleaner water to the river and the perception of locals has also changed.

Deodhar stated that many people have observed that the stench has gone and the place is no longer perceived as a dumping site. “There are regular visitors along the stretch. We organise weekly storytelling and music programmes at the place. The efforts have helped the citizens reconnect or establish the lost connection with the river,” she stated. 

Shaileja Deshpande, another director-founder with Jeevitnadi, stated that their initiative is an example of how ecosystems can get revived with dedicated efforts. “The efforts of a small dedicated group of volunteers attracted and connected people towards conservation. These live streams are the support systems of any river. The technical and scientific approach has helped support the river system by treating the water entering the river at the source,” she added.

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