Our Centuries’ Old Connection with Dehra’s Canal System
Today, Dehradun is a long collection of buildings from north to south with houses and shopping complexes constantly being built. There are people and vehicles all over. Though it is one of India’s wettest places with an average of 2200 mm rainfall annually, water shortages, especially in summer, has now become a common phenomenon.
“Over the hill wonder where the green grass went? All buried under the new cement. I wonder where the birds have flown? They have gone to find another home. What grows so fast before my eyes? A garbage dump, a million flies. Is this the place you celebrate?” -Dirge for Dehradun, by Ruskin Bond, 2006.
In spite of Dehradun being declared as an “Ecologically Sensitive Zone” 30 years ago, we still couldn’t do anything to safeguard its fragility. Doon valley is surrounded by the Himalayas in the North, the Shivalik in the South, and the Ganga in the East and the Yamuna in the West, making it one of the most magnificent natural preserves in the world. This valley has a rare ecosystem due to the ridgelines of two major watersheds (Ganga & Yamuna) which can support a wide variety of plants and animals, which was even mentioned by Babar in the Babar Nama that “The finest running water in Hindustan is that in the Doon”. But this has changed today, and the garden town of Dehradun has traveled a long way or rather a wrong way since its birth.
Last decade, there was a considerable decline in the water levels in most parts of the city. The drinking water condition and water supplied to the inner-city areas also have are in a serious concern of bacterial contamination. Waterlogging occurs every year in the city during monsoon. Most of the city sewage flows through open drains. There is no Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) in the city and so the drainage of the city is borne by the rivers namely Bindal and Rispana Rao. A “city of grey hair and green hedges” had denatured into a busy and polluted urban center. A growing population of humans and vehicles along with the continued improper dumping of garbage has transformed the very peculiar for which Dehradun was once appreciated.
The British knew of Dehradun’s rich water resources and, thus, laid one of the finest canal networks in the valley. The groundwater was not much used and so the water from canal and spring was mainly used by the people for domestic and irrigation purposes. Eighty percent of the drinking water supply in the city is done by extracting groundwater which is available in Dehradun at a depth of 20 m to 150 m which have dipped by 8 m now. Doon Valley is identified by Doon Gravels. These incorporate unconsolidated gravels, pebbles, and boulders which are very pervious and penetrable which allows water to percolate. These act like a subsurface sponge draining water away from the surface and the vegetative cover on it helps in absorbing and slowly allowing moisture to be released into the soil. But the expansion of paved areas, planning of roads, cemented houses, shopping complexes, malls, and encroachment along the river beds has led to increased runoff and reduced the natural recharge of the aquifers. The contracted groundwater reserve at Sahastradhara and the vanished savory basmati fields at Majra are the proof of this.
The canals which were once a prominent part of Dehradun’s environment have now been concealed either with concrete slabs, pavements or turned into repositories for domestic waste. The four main canal systems of Dehradun namely Bijapur, Rajpur, Kalanga and Jakhan having seven, five, seven and ten smaller canals bifurcating from them, were advanced during the British period and now being preserved by State Irrigation department. Dehradun was once known for its canals covering more than 50 kilometers in length, intertwining the town, contributing to the rare surrounding to the State capital. However, with time, major stretches of most of these canals including Dharampur canal, Kargi canal, Kanwali canal, Kaulagarh canal, East Canal, Kalanga canal from Maldevta to Raipur and others have been covered by the department so as to avoid the water loss, dumping of waste in them and makes space for road widening. But somewhere, in this logic of covering the canals of Dehradun, the city has lost its existence.
“These canals insignificant though they appear at first, are the greatest blessing to this district. In fact, the people depend almost entirely on them for drinking and domestic purpose and for the cultivation of all the more valuable crops.” -Baker (1886)
The factual problem started when it became the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand in the year 2000. This has put a burden on carrying capacity of this city. The open and green spaces, rivulets and canals are rapidly being transformed into cemented areas which lead to the denseness in the center of the city. This is contributing greatly to the environmental degradation and molding it into an urban heat island. The future of groundwater resources in the city is of huge interest and the upcoming projects would further derange the situation. The bleak summary of areas like Sahastradhara which has a very small reserve of groundwater. Accentuating on the need of green cover, the water table depends upon the open or the green area which is the vital place for water recharge. During the light rain, water seeps into the earth and enhances the water table. But if the surface is covered by any superficial material, like cement or any other man-made structures, the water simply runs away. It is therefore important to constantly recharge the groundwater which would otherwise dry up. The canals underground started primarily on account of the traffic problems in the city. The move has changed the once known face of the Doon valley forever. Major portions of canals are already done underground and more to follow, some arterial roads have certainly become spacious, but this has come at the cost of the city’s water environs.
Among the canals that have been done underground are the Dharampur Canal, starting from Nany’s Bakery till Bengali Kothi encircling a distance of 6.29 km already done underground. Similarly, with the Kargi canal which begins from Haridwar Road to Tyagi Road covering a distance of 1.55 km has been done underground too along with the Rajpur canal from Haridwar Road till Jogiwala Mussoorie bypass road covering a stretch of 2.8 km. Further, for Kanwali canal, the stretch starting from Garhi Cantonment thana to Transport Nagar covering a distance of 8.66 km has been done underground. Kaulagarh Canal from Garhi Cantonment Police station to the ONGC Helipad that involves a distance of .58 km is also covered as well. Not only this, many proposed stretches of canals are still there in process of being done underground.
This canal system was a true representative of the ecology of Dehradun. They had benefited the city by maintaining its temperature and also “living resources” for those residing alongside. These canals were the reason for the survival of watermills in the valley. But with these canals getting underground at a fast phase, the continuity of the water-mills was under threat too. The water channels were also used for rituals. But, these days it is difficult to find fresh flowing water within the city limits and performance of various rituals like immersion of idols and the conduct of Chatt have become more difficult.
The irrigation department and development authorities argue that the underground canals will not only help in better traffic movement but other benefits too, the greatest subsistence that these water bodies will be saved from getting more polluted. They had become most usable garbage dumping sites for the local residents. Also, making the canals underground have reduced the loss of water along with the revenue worth lakhs has been saved which was spent every year in the cleaning of these canals. Locals often criticize, as this has disrupted the beauty of Dehradun. But the authorities say that this has led to multiple benefits for the people and city as well giving examples of arterial roads like GMS and EC are amongst the widest road in Dehradun, ensuring smooth flow of traffic in the city.
This clearly indicates that it would be more sensitive to develop Dehradun as a disaster-proof city. Preserving the abundant downpour during monsoon through green spaces and water harvesting needs to be taken up seriously. Construction activities should be avoided in the recharge area. Green stretch in a city will help in recharging groundwater but also trap the air pollutants and maintain the local temperature of the surrounding. Let’s all aim to promote ecotourism and transform our city into a place which is one of the best sustainably developed urban cities in the world.