Guwahati’s Wetlands on the Fast Track to Extinction
PCBA data shows quality of water in major wetlands of the city plunging much lower than the necessary minimum. Citizens allege authorities of allotting settlement in wetlands rather than restoration.
Scanty water supply and incessant flooding are the two major features by which the burgeoning gateway of Southeast Asia – Guwahati - is identified by. Guwahati, despite being one of the oldest cities of the country and the biggest metropolis of the region, has failed to address these two civic issues. Many attribute these to the city’s unplanned growth.
Guwahati has being developing over generations, with successive governments failing to regulate its unplanned expansion. A majority of the Guwahatians have been languishing for years- struggling for water especially during the dry seasons, and equally suffering to remain afloat during the monsoons. In the backdrop of these issues, many of the older generation remember the number of water bodies that once dotted the city, which could have been apparent solutions.
“Guwahati once had over 40 wetlands and water bodies, and 17 hills. Over the generations, these hills have been flattened and the water bodies filled up for people’s vested interests. Also, there are the tributaries of the Brahmaputra like Bharalu and Basistha. When we were kids we saw people fishing in these water bodies. Now all of them are dead or on the verge of death. And this is the main reason why the city is gradually degrading,” said Padma Shri Ajoy Dutta, working president of the NGO, Save Guwahati Build Guwahati (SGBG).
Gradual encroachment from all sides of the surviving wetlands is nothing new. Also most have turned into mere dumping grounds; they are neither proper sources of water due to their poor water quality, nor are they serving as drainage systems where the city’s flood water can be sloped out to.
G Plus took stock of the present condition of the remaining ‘beel’ (wetlands) of the city that were once mega wetlands and water resources and even means of livelihood for the people. We approached the Pollution Control Board of Assam (PCBA) to collect the Water Quality Index (WQI) of these wetlands of Guwahati.
The data of eight of the major water bodies as provided by PCBA are as below:
Parameters of Checking WQI under the National Water Monitoring Programme
As per the pollution control board website, the Water Quality Index (WQI) is a single defining criterion, either 'Satisfactory' or 'Unsatisfactory'. There are four main parameters calculated to determine this index which include:
1. Dissolved Oxygen (DO): The measure of how much oxygen is dissolved in the water. It should be more than 4 milligram per litre (>4.0mg/l)
2. Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD): The measure of the amount of oxygen required to remove waste organic matter from water. It should be 3 milligram per litre (<3.0mg/l).
3. Fecal Coliform: The presence of fecal coliform bacteria in aquatic environments indicates that the water has been contaminated with the fecal material of man or other animals. It should be limited to less than 2500 MPN (most probable number) per 100 litres of water (<2500 MPN/ 100 ml).
4. Total Coliform: The total coliform bacteria test is a primary indicator of "potability,” suitability for consumption of drinking water. It measures the concentration of total coliform bacteria associated with the possible presence of disease causing organisms. It should be limited to less than 5000 MPN (most probable number) per 100 litres of water (<5000 MPN/ 100 ml).
The pollution board clearly states that even one single parameter from these four parameters exceeding the criteria value renders any water to be considered as 'Unsatisfactory'.
Seeing the provided water quality data, it is evident that three of these water bodies, the Silsako Beel, Soru Sola Beel and the Bor Sola Beel are near dead, and the rest are gradually following suit, given that most of the parameters are marginal.
Citizens criticise GDD and GMDA for failure to restore wetlands
The NGO, Save Guwahati Build Guwahati (SGBG), has been urging the Guwahati Development Department (GDD) and the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) to take urgent steps to overcome the perennial problems. Now, criticizing the authorities, Ajoy Dutta said that even if the Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act, 2008 and its subsequent amendment of 2010 are implemented properly, the water-logging problem of the city can be effectively solved. “This Act needs to be amended further and the provision of ‘Restoration’ should also be added. As of now, the Act is a complete failure, as GMDA itself has been allotting land in wetlands to private parties flouting all norms. They are not the authority to allot land to anyone. That power lies with the district administration.”
Recently, the GMDA was pulled into controversy when the authorities allotted land at the Silsako Beel to some builder for construction. Yet this is what the GMDA website reads about the wetland, “It is a large urban water body important for the role it plays as a reservoir basin for the storm water runoff from the nearby hills and Meghalaya. The conservation and restoration of the lake is undertaken by GMDA with the intention to bring people close to nature and to make them understand the importance of nature and to motivate its preservation and the diverse habitat of the aquatic life.”
And for Sola Beel, this is what the authorities write, “It is a valuable water body of Guwahati city near Paltan Bazaar. This urban water body or beel was once the habitat for a large number of flora and fauna. It also receives rainwater run-off from nearby hills and other areas. Sola beel comprises two divisions: Barsola and Sarusola. The lakes are shrinking rapidly as a result of encroachment and land filling.”
SGBG, as well as experts and many other concerned citizens, have been demanding eviction of the encroachers of the wetlands for many years now. It needs to be mentioned that once the city’s 40 or so water bodies were all connected by narrower waterways. In older days, believe it or not, Guwahati could be traversed by waterways alone. These finally connected to the Brahmaputra at many points. The expanding city life has not just filled up the wetlands, people have also blocked these drains or streams that had served as the city floods outlet to the river. And in the absence of any proper drainage system, artificial flood is inevitable.
“Most of Guwahati was built covering wetlands. The Sola Beel extended from Ambari to Chatribari, covering Manipuri Basti, Paltan Bazar and Rehabari. It was even connected to the Dighalipukhuri, which in turn was connected to the Brahmaputra. But governments have given it for settlement for their benefit and these people after getting settlement in turn have sold these off to bigger players,” said Dutta.
“Of course Guwahati will be flooded. Where will the rain water divert to? Ground water can be found across the city by digging up about a metre only. Isn’t this evidence enough that this city is built atop wetlands? The government talks about metro trains, but has never bother to conduct any ‘Contour Survey’ till date. They don’t talk about underground sewerage and underground drainage. Every household has septic tanks, but no sewerage connection. With every flood, the contents of these tanks get flushed out with the water. This is the condition of this metropolis,” he added.
“When land was asked in Dispur for cremation of former chief minister Tarun Gogoi, Himanta Biswa Sarma said that the particular plot cannot be allotted as it was a wetland. We really welcome that gesture, but why not show the same attitude at all times? If the government does not take up immediate measures Guwahati will turn into an abandoned city in the coming years,” Dutta said.