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Economy trumps environment for India's rivers

Discharges into the Yamuna river in Delhi point to an environment under severe strain, despite government efforts.

Last updated: 20 Jun 2014 15:40
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Industrial waste from inland areas and untreated sewage pour into the river through discharge drains [File: AP]

New Delhi, India - Polluted rivers in India pose a major threat to agriculture and public health but there are few signs that costly efforts to tackle the problem are making headway.

In New Delhi, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent since the 1990s to clean up the Yamuna river - but with little positive impact.

Fears are now growing that the emphasis placed by candidates in the country’s recent elections on kick-starting India’s economic engine - which has slowed to less than five percent - will confine efforts to revive the country’s dying rivers to the back seat.

Journey back in time

Residents in New Delhi in the 1960s still recall swimming and fishing in the Yamuna every day.

But today, most people cannot bear to walk by the river for more than a few minutes, overwhelmed by the foul stench of garbage and, at times, stagnant water.

Like many rivers that pass through India’s cities, a dozen kilometres upstream is like a journey back in time to how the river once was for older residents who experienced it as children.

In Sonia Vihar, at the northern edge of Delhi, where the Yamuna enters the city, the water is clean, sparkling, and flowing. People, fish, children, and water buffalos bathe and play in the water.

Photographer Surender Solanki has been documenting the Yamuna for the past year but it was as a child, visiting nearby relatives, when he paid his first visit to the river.

"Even back then I could understand the importance the river has to a civilisation," he explains.

The reason for this cleanliness is because of those who access the water before it reaches Delhi and standing by the banks, the average resident of Delhi would think they are outside the city.

"It’s mostly villagers doing agriculture that live upstream," says Solanki. "They know the value of the river and respect it more than urban people do."

The largest tributary river of the Ganges in northern India, the 1,376km Yamuna originates at the Yamunotri Glacier, the seat of the goddess Yamuna in the Hindu religion meaning that the river is venerated by devotees.

Yet the river is transformed just two kilometres downstream from Sonia Vihar when it reaches Delhi’s Wazirabad area, where industrial waste from inland areas and untreated sewage pour into the river through discharge drains, rendering it severely polluted.

In May, the government shut 112 illegal drains. In spite of efforts to limit pollution, for the next 22km as the river stretches through Delhi, it starts to die.

"The dissolved oxygen is zero," says Solanki. "That means the water is dead. The water is not fit for human or plant. The ecology is gone."

High cost of pollution

Besides the obvious damage to the environment, the pollution causes economic costs as well.

The World Bank estimates environmental degradation costs India 5.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) every year.

River degradation across India is considered especially damaging to the economy because of its impact on the country’s agricultural sectors, according to Anshuman of the New Delhi-based Energy Resources Institute

"Our economy is largely dependent upon the agriculture, and agriculture uses 80 percent of the water in our country," he says.

"The costs of degradation include, for example, agricultural productivity loss and the cost of treatment of water because of the enhanced pollution level."

The costs of degradation include, for example, agricultural productivity loss and the cost of treatment of water because of the enhanced pollution level

Anshuman, The Energy Resources Institute

Anshuman adds that there are other indirect - but nonetheless real - costs to people in terms of public health, stemming from the burden of diseases caused by water pollution.

Near the southern edge of the city, as the river travels and becomes more polluted, those living in the riverside Okhla area of New Delhi live with the consequences.

Aside from the nose wrenching smell, residents complain that the pollution attracts mosquitoes that carry malaria.

The Indian government has recently established up a panel of officials to draw up new plans for cleaning up the Yamuna after recently doing the same for the Ganges river. Government proposals have included building sewage interception drains and new treatment plants.

But notwithstanding these proposals, the amount of sewage heading for the river remains beyond the existing capacity of treatment plants.

Moreover, Anshuman says that those treatment plants still do not reach their full capacity, leaving large amounts of untreated sewage to flow downstream.

While nearly everyone blames the government for the river’s condition, some are more pragmatic.

"People living here should realise that they themselves are making the river dirty and stop blaming politicians," says one resident. "If people have the will to keep it clean, then politicians will act."

The amount of garbage piling up on the streets of the city - regardless of how much winds up in the river itself - offers a stark example of his point.

Beyond Okhla, the polluted and stinking water, at times covered in white foam from industrial waste, flows out of the city to Agra where the famous Taj Mahal is located.

Eventually at Triveni Sangam in Allahabad, it merges with the Ganges, one of India’s holiest yet most polluted rivers.

It was said that bathing in the Yamuna could wash away one’s sins - but today it seems the river can no longer cleanse the conscience of those that have defiled it.

Follow Faiz Jamil on Twitter: @faizreports

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Al Jazeera
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