Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

Watered Down by Deepa Dinesh

A couple of days ago, I went on a site visit to the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi. The Yamuna passes through several hundred kilometers before it meets the Ganga at Allahabad. The length of Yamuna that passes through Delhi is approximately 22 kms before it enters the Agra canal. But, more than 70% of Yamuna’s pollution load comes from this 22 km stretch via Delhi! Startling, isn’t it?

Let’s examine the situation with the Yamuna. The main causes of pollution in the Yamuna are municipal sewage and industrial effluents (Point sources of pollution). The other (non-point) sources of pollution are, waste from slums, people defecating along the river and waste thrown into the river from bridges (this includes remnants of religious ceremonies too). In fact, in spite of the Delhi Government having put up 10-foot long railings on both sides of each bridge, the offenders somehow creep up on them and throw the garbage into the river! Municipal sewage is carried by a total of 22 drains running across the city. And these drains are supposed to lead to 17 sewage treatment plants (STPs). These plants treat the sewage water in three phases and finally empty the treated water into the river. Industrial effluents come from various sources, ranging from large scale industries to small scale or home run enterprises. Pesticides and herbicides are found in abundance in the effluents. When all this waste mixes with the river water, the dissolved oxygen (DO) level goes down to 0. But the optimal level of DO is 7 to 9 mg/l for the river’s ecosystem to survive. The total coli form content in the Yamuna is around 4 billion which is a world apart from the acceptable range of <500 MPN/100 ml. Also, Delhi’s and Agra’s drinking water supply depends largely on the Yamuna, but presently due to the bad quality of the river water, Delhi pumps in water from the Tehri dam which is about 180 kms away.

In spite of the Yamuna Action Plans 1 and 2, the river continues to flow imbibing the dirt of the city. The Delhi government promised its citizens that the Yamuna would be cleaned before the Commonwealth games in 2010. But promises were broken. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) declared the Yamuna “dead” a while ago. So are we going to accept the sentence and give it a burial by dumping more waste in it or is it time to revive the river which has endured with Delhi for over 5000 years?

It’s not just the Yamuna. Most of our cities have polluted their rivers, for example, the Cooum River in Chennai has turned into an eyesore (or rather a nosebleed, if I may say so!), and the Mithi in Mumbai has been reduced to a nullah. It’s common knowledge that great civilizations have been built on riverbeds, including our own Indus valley civilization. Rivers are revered as goddesses in Hindu mythology. If you look at some of the most famous cities in the world, each one of them boasts of a river (or riverfront) teeming with life and activity. In spite of a rich historical and cultural connection with their respective rivers, why did our cities let this happen to our rivers?

The ultimate question is, can we reclaim our rivers and treat them the way they deserve to be treated?  It’s a daunting task that needs vision and commitment, but many cities have proven that it can be done. The need of the hour is citizens, government and the industry coming together to work as one. Industries need to treat their effluents at source and pay taxes for producing toxic waste. Citizen groups can “adopt” a section of the river and keep the vicinity clean by preventing dumping waste, defecation along the river. Londoners did a lot of volunteering when the Thames was being cleaned. Last but not the least, the state and city government needs to first draft a vision plan for their rivers including all the technological and infrastructural requirements, but always keeping in mind the social and economic effects of their plan. It’s time for the authorities and citizens to think and act, fast!

*MPN – Most Probable Number

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This entry was posted on 16/01/2012 by in Articles, Deepa Dinesh, Urban Renewal.
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