The United Nations reminded all countries on March 22, World Water Day, that humanity continues to impose a staggering burden on rivers, lakes, and deltas each year in the form of pollution. What the UN has highlighted in its report titled “Sick Water?” should stir the conscience of people everywhere. Pollutants dumped in key water sources annually are estimated to weigh as much as the global population — close to seven billion people. This disturbing truth should encourage everyone starting with national governments to do more to protect the broth of life. The first step is to plug the sources of the millions of tonnes of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste that are pumped perennially into waterways and other freshwater reserves. Action taken to improve water quality pays rich dividends — the UN Environment Programme and Habitat estimate the return to be anything between $3 and $34 for every dollar spent, depending upon the region and technology employed. Such investments are particularly important for India.

India's response to pollution has been atrociously slow. In 2008, the country had the capacity to treat only about 18 per cent of the sewage produced in cities and towns; and the increments since thenhave been insignificant. The rest of the sewage flows into waterways and lakes, contaminating groundwater and spreading disease. The Lok Sabha recently heard from Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh that in the nation's capital, a vast volume of untreated sewage was flowing into the Yamuna every day. This goes on merrily at a time some idle capacity is available in Delhi's treatment plants. The problem is linked to the national issue of insufficient housing, sanitation, and sewerage. The most infamous example of India's failed attempts at river cleansing is that of the Ganga, which has over the millennia been revered as a holy river. It is listed by the UN as severely polluted, with its basin receiving billions of litres of wastewater every year. Clearly, governments are abdicating their responsibility towards citizens by allowing the poisoning of meagre and dwindling freshwater. Some are keen to set up expensive desalination plants, without making a parallel effort to protect surface and groundwater, and recover wastewater. The way forward is to enforce the well-recognised ‘polluter pays' principle. Industry and municipal authorities should lead the clean up. When will rising India realise it must go all out to ensure clean water for its people?

More In: Editorial | Opinion