Death by Drowning
Remember the tale of the terrible monster city called Delhi? And why I hurled nasty abuses at it? To think about its huge appetite for food, materials, fuel, and water, and vomitting out of tonnes of garbage, gallons of untreated sewage, dangerous gases and suspended particles makes me dizzy all the time.
One of most startling figures of them all is the city’s water consumption per day… 850 million gallons! And if this more than doubles in a few years, what would happen to river Yamuna – that supplies 80 per cent of Delhi’s water?, I wondered.
So, I went for a boat ride in the Yamuna. And I came back sick to the core. I had just waded through a stinking drain. And seen a once-alive and kicking river in its dying throes.
The truth is, almost every river in India today is either drowning in muck or soon going to reach that state. It’s true of Cooum, in Tamilnadu, and Damodar that flows through Bihar and Jharkhand, our holy river Ganga; and….
Anil Agarwal, founder editor, Down To Earth, believed that a “society is known by the water it keeps”. “The health of a river…reflects the very health of the human society, its ability to live harmoniously with its environment,”, he said.
If this is true then we are all seriously sick now. So without wasting more time, I decided to begin the treatment process.
The first, and the most crucial step, of course, is to diagnose the cause of the disease… Why are the rivers dying?
Let’s take the Yamuna as a test case.
When Yamuna flows by Delhi, the city extracts gallons of fresh water for drinking and irrigation. What is given in return to the river is only excreta – sewage, and industrial and agricultural waste. This sewage is (supposed to be) collected, transported, and assembled for treatment (cleaning), and then flown back to the river. In reality, what goes back is far from clean…
The irony is that the city has 40 per cent of the entire sewage treatment infrastructure in the country with only five per cent of the country’s population! And still, Yamuna is unclean.
India's fourteen major, 55 minor and several hundred small rivers receive millions of litres of sewage, industrial and agricultural wastes.
The causes (and the effects) of river pollution are numerous. So, these are divided into two broad categories:
1. Point source– occurs when pollutants are directly discharged into a river.
2. Non-point source – releases pollutants indirectly into a river through transport or environmental change.
Let’s take a look at the ‘indirect’ contributors first. You are probably familiar with all of them via text books. They are:
Pesticides, fertilisers, or nutrient pollutants: used in agricultural fields run off into local streams and rivers or drain down into groundwater, contaminating the fresh water. Only 60 per cent of chemical fertilisers are utilised in the soils and the balance is leached into the soil polluting the ground water.
Oils Land-based petroleum waste (like drips of oil, fuel, and fluid from cars and trucks) is carried into rivers by rainwater runoff. Oily wastes discharged during shipping, and oil spills and leakages are major polluters.
Sediment:Deforestation does not only affect the plant and animal biodiversity, it also increases the amount of sediment running off the land into nearby rivers, as the soil lies exposed to erosion.
Mining: Mining can be both a Point source and a Non-point source of river pollution.
Mining process exposes heavy metals and sulfur compounds, which are leached into rivers by rainwater. This results in Acid Mine Drainage, and heavy metal pollution that persists long after the mining is over. Moreover, piles of mining waste are also transferred to the nearest water body. But, the worst aspect of mining is that the mining companies often dump wastes directly into rivers as a method of disposal.
The sorrow of a nation
Damodar River, the ‘sorrow of Bengal’, is now one of the most polluted rivers in India. Many stretches of the river and its tributaries look like large drains carrying highly turbid water. It is estimated that the daily outfall of pollutants and effluents includes two tonnes of non-metallic toxins, and 1.2 tonne of toxic metallic substances! All thanks to mining operations and coal-based industries that have sprouted on its mineral-rich banks.
Now let’s investigate the core of the disease, the main culprit behind the river-deaths.