Sweet Mithi: The river that soured

The ever-expanding city of Mumbai has put immense pressure on the natural environment. Mumbai’s largest river, the mighty Mithi, now turned into a stormwater drain, wends through the city carrying with it the garbage and the sewage of millions. On its banks is Dharavi, India’s largest slum – the second largest in Asia by some accounts.

Dylan Crawford, follows the river’s 18km journey from Vahir Lake to Mahim Bay, eventually emptying into the Arabian sea. The filth and squalor as seen from the Mithi’s point of view attempts to anthropomorphise the river that was once aptly named ‘sweet’ in the Marathi language.

A new day rises over the Mithi River and for all those who live on its banks. The city comes alive around it and for a moment the river looks beautiful as it reflects the sunrise. Photo Dylan Crawford


A man cleans his clothes using detergent on the banks of the Mithi River in Mumbai. This is the only method of washing and general cleaning for many. The chemical run-off from their daily chores finds its way to the river. Older Mumbaikars remember swimming in the river as late as the 1980’s, something no one would even dream of doing now. Photo Dylan Crawford


A six-meter-high concrete walls separates the river from the surrounding rubbish tip, in a shortsighted attempt to prevent flooding. The 2005 flood devastated Mumbai. The Mithi, clogged with tonnes of garbage, struggled to cope with the 944mm of rain that fell in one day. The river broke its banks, flooding the city and killing 914 people. The floods cost the city a staggering $90 million. The panicked government came up with another band-aid solution, this six-meter-high concrete wall that traps the river and destroyed what was left of the ecosystem including thousands of mangrove trees that fringed its banks. It was the final nail in the coffin. The transformation of Mithi from river to sewage system was now complete. Photo Dylan Crawford


Material washes down the river until it reaches Mahim Bay. There it tangles onto the few mangroves that survive this hostile environment. Photo Dylan Crawford


A woman disposes of household trash by throwing it directly into the Mithi. With no regular garbage removal, the people living in the Dharavi slum have little choice but to throw rubbish in the river . Photo Dylan Crawford


The Mithi River was in the way of progress for the city and so was diverted to allow the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, located in the centre of the city, to expand. This destroyed estuaries and low-lying floodplains, increasing the chance of flooding. Photo Dylan Crawford


The Mithi empties into Mahim Bay bringing with it the city’s garbage. A small amount of the rubbish that flows into the Arabian sea washes back on the shores of Mumbai. Photo Dylan Crawford


But the polluted river remains a life-line for some. Immersed waist-deep in festering pollutants, men sifts through the trash found in the Mithi River in the hope of finding  recyclables. Photo Dylan Crawford


The lack of rain in the dry season leaves the river empty, save for small pockets of waste water that pool around the drains of the slums. To prevent the stagnant water from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes, volunteers use excavators to dig trenches to allow the water to flow. Photo Dylan Crawford


Hundreds of volunteers gather at the start of the Mithi River, which is a dry riverbed at this time, to separate the inorganic waste from the mud. The clean-up is organised by Eco-Activist Afroz Shah, in a bid to save Mumbai’s waterways. Photo Dylan Crawford.


A young volunteer adds to a growing pile of waste gathered while cleaning the riverbed. Photo Dylan Crawford


Shah is well known for his efforts to clean the beaches and rivers of Mumbai. What started as small movement now collects and recycles about 4,000 tons of trash every year. Photo Dylan Crawford


A veteran volunteer works with an intensity that shows her true passion for the environment, grabbing large hunks of waste and removing them from the water. Photo Dylan Crawford


The polluted Mahim Bay separates  Mumbai’s high-rises from the fishing village slums. Photo Dylan Crawford


The sun sets on another day on the Mithi, as a garland from a nearby temple mingles with human waste on the river a city forgot. Photo Dylan Crawford

 This photographic project was part of The Water Story funded by the New Colombo Plan and the Griffith University School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science.

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