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.
Factories often discharge effluent directly into rivers. It is just another easy waste disposal method. According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the major industries causing water pollution include distilleries, sugar, textile, electroplating, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, pulp and paper mills, tanneries, dyes and dye intermediates, petrochemicals, steel plants, and the list goes on and on and on.
A Dying example...
Gujarat is one of the most industrialised states of India. But, this industrial growth has come at a cost – environmental pollution. All the major rivers of Gujarat – be it the Kolak, the Mahi, the Daman Ganga or the Amlakhadi – are polluted due to effluent discharged by industries. If you look at Sabarmati, you can see red water released by the common effluent treatment plant (CETP) in Vatva flowing in the river.
The Amlakhadi River, which meets Narmada near Bharuch district of Gujarat, was once a source of water for the villagers of Sajod, Pungam, Matiad and Haripura in the district. Today, it seems like an effluent channel. As more than 1,500 industrial units (mostly chemical units) in Jhagadia, Ankleshwar, Panoli, Vilayat and Dahej have been discharging sewage into the Amlakhadi for years.
The good news is that though industrial discharge can be extremely noxious and toxic, it can be controlled. Industrial units that generate pollution can be classified and identified, and the pollution can be stopped or reduced with law enforcement, regulation and technology. But, the major polluter is not industrial waste, it is domestic sewage.
A faecal dose
Domestic sewage is the biggest threat to the rivers. Nearly 80 per cent of river pollution in India is due to excreta! Untreated, poorly treated sewage, and overflow from under-capacity sewage treatment plants send contaminated water into rivers. These rivers, incidentally, are also the sources of drinking water! The microorganisms present in faeces and urine rapidly use up the oxygen in the water and leave little or nothing for the fish, plants and other aquatic organisms.
This sewage does not only degrade the quality of water, but leads to what may be called ‘hydrocide’! So, who is the main culprit behind this hydrocide? Not those who defecate in the open, as they have no access to toilets. But, those who have toilets – the middle class and the affluent. This is because with every flush we use more and more clean water to dispose our faeces and urine (over 10 litres), increasing the quantity of sewage. A large amount of this never reaches STPs to be ‘cleaned’. But, meets the rivers.
Apart from excreta, rivers are also used for washing clothes, utensils, and other such activities.
Even the dead are a cause of river pollution. If a deceased person’s family cannot afford a funeral they may immerse the ashes of the deceased in the sacred river Ganga, or they may put the corpse itself in the river!
No more self healing
The most alarming news is that the muck-ridden rivers are losing the ability to self-clean. The flow of fresh water is so low that they are being left with no ‘assimilative capacity’. Assimilative capacity is the ability of a running water body (such as rivers) to receive wastewaters or toxic materials without harmful effects and without damage to aquatic life or humans who consume the water.
The rivers are failing to regenerate and revive between the cities they transect. And even if the effluent is treated, the rivers still remain polluted, as there is no dilution. River Ganga in Kanpur and Cooum in Chennai are perfect examples of this loss of revival capacity.
While these factors pollute the rivers of this country, what does the government do? Well, it makes plans to ‘clean up’, and invests huge amounts of money in them. All these plans focus primarily on reducing the inflow of domestic sewage into the rivers. Here, sample some of them…
Ganga Action Plan
Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched in 1985 with the hope of improving the water quality of the holy river Ganga to acceptable standards. The idea behind this 462-crore project was to intercept the sewage and treat it before discharging it into the river. Under the programme, 25 towns located along the river in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal were selected. The first phase ended in 1993, and the second phase began. This phase, with the same objectives, included work on four tributaries of the river – Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahanadi, and the estimated cost had increased to Rs. 2,386 crore.
National River Conservation Plan
National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) was launched in 1995. CPCB identified 71 polluted stretches in the 14 major river basins in the country, and made this 10-year plan with an outlay of Rs. 2,318 crore to clean these stretches. Under this, the state governments are required to set up citizen’s monitoring committees. GAP-II and NRCP were merged in 1996. Yamuna Action Plan Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) is being implemented since April 1993 for water pollution abatement and conservation of the river Yamuna in 12 towns of Haryana, 8 towns of Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi.
And there are many other river action plans. According to Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and National River Conservation Directorate (NCRD), 34 rivers in 160 towns in 20 states have been ‘cleaned’ by river action plans. The Ganga, Yamuna, Adyar and Cooum, Musi, Gomti, Cauvery, Sutlej, Godavari, Vaigai a Sabarmati received almost 88 per cent of the sanctioned money, and the remaining 24 rivers got just 12 per cent.
But, the 10 most expensive towns – accounting for most of the efforts under NRCP – still remain highly polluted.
The Gap remains
So what on earth is going wrong? As I told you, these river action plans put in a bulk of the money in creating several forms of ‘hardware’ to collect, convey, and treat sewage. And then in releasing the treated effluent. As per the plans, the hardware consists of building and maintaining drainage systems; setting up sewage treatment facilities; building low-cost sanitation and community toilets (so that raw sewage is not deposited directly into the rivers); building electric crematoria; and beautifying and the river front, in a bid to make people aware and enlist their help in protecting the water bodies. The reality is that most of the money has gone into building expensive, energy consuming sewage treatment infrastructure.
STPs: 'waste'ed efforts
There are 269 treatment plants in the country. But, there is a major gap between the generated waste and treatment capacity.
At present, India has the capacity to treat roughly 18.6 per cent of the sewage, and is adding the capacity to treat another 5.2 per cent. But, by the time this capacity will be increased, more sewage will be generated. The gap will just keep on increasing. So the gowth in treatment infrastructure can never keep pace with the increase in population and waste…
Not only this, there is gap even in the infrastructure. The NRCP has approved of sewage treatment projects of 6,247 million litres per day (mld) till now. But, only 37 per cent of this has been built – merely 2,318 mld. And according to the 2006 CPCB survey, only 72.2 per cent of the capacity of these built STPs is utilised. Meaning, we are at present treating only 13.5 per cent of the country’s sewage!
This is because STPs either lack money or lack sewage! Yes, you heard it right. Lack of sewage is not because the cities of this country do not generate waste, but because very little sewage reaches the STPs.
Most STPs are built far away from the cities, most of which do not have a functional drainage system to transfer the waste. This is because a large part of urban India lives in unauthorised colonies or unconnected settlements and suburbs. And the ones that have the system do not maintain it.
According to CPCB, less than three per cent of the sewage generated in urban India is treated before it flows back into the rivers.
Tides of change
The diagnosis is straightforward enough. The current mode of treatment will not suffice. Saving the dying rivers will require a major change in mindset, and a fresh new strategy. Recently, the global convervation organisation WWF published a report on ‘World's Top Rivers at Risk’(India and its neighbours account for two of them, Ganga and Indus!). And its Freshwater Programme Director Jamie Pittock said, "Conservation of rivers and wetlands must be seen as part and parcel of national security, health and economic success.
In other words, rivers will have to be the top most in a nation’s priority list. How can we begin to do things differently?
And we have to constantly innovate and experiment with new technologies to find the most suitable one—that suits our pockets and also cleans our rivers.