According to a Niti Aayog report, A Composite Water Management Index, published in June 2018, more than 600 million people in India face high to extreme water crisis in the country. About three-fourth of the households in the country do not have drinking water on their premises.
With nearly 70% of water being contaminated, India is placed 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index. On World Environment Day, we present a reality check on some of the mighty rivers of India, and the dire straits they are in.
(Compiled by Naresh Singaravelu and Harshita Mishra)
The Ganga river holds deep religious significance in India with thousands thronging the Ganga’s ghats (banks) every year to bathe and offer prayers. But the alarming levels of pollutants and sewage waste that are discharged into it every day by over 1100 industrial units and several towns situated on its banks, have made it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. A recent report by the Central Pollution Control Board declared that the Ganga water is unfit for bathing, let alone drinking directly. Recently the National Green Tribunal, the apex environmental monitoring body, also directed Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar to deposit Rs. 25 lakhs each for not taking adequate steps to curb pollution in the Ganga. Despite launching several clean-up programmes like the Ganga Action Plan I and II and the present government’s Namami Ganga project, little groundwork has been done to restore the river’s lost glory.
The 2900-km long river and Assam’s lifeline, the Brahmaputra, today is reeling under water pollution in the form of sewage waste and oil discharge. Rapid urbanisation and lack of efficient waste disposal systems have now rendered it lifeless. A recent report states that at least 28 kms of the river stretch in Assam is heavily polluted. However, efforts to clean up the river is mired in political blame-games and diplomatic issues with China. The Assam and Arunachal Pradesh governments have accused China’s dam building activities on the border of polluting the Siang waters, which flow through southern Tibet and become the Brahmaputra in Assam.
The Yamuna, which was once the lifeline of Delhi and one of India’s most sacred rivers, has also been reduced to being one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Choking with heavy metal discharges and peak levels of Coliform, a disease- causing bacteria, the Yamuna water is extremely unsafe for consumption. Over 22 drains dump sewage and industrial waste into the water every year and there is a glaring absence of adequate sewer networks, according to a report by a Monitoring Committee appointed by the NGT. Despite the ambitious Yamuna Action Plans which were launched in the 1990s and the Uttar Pradesh government and the Central government joining hands to stem the rot, pollution levels have not been curbed and are even expected to rise, experts say.
The subject of an intense riparian dispute, the Cauvery, which originates in Karnataka before flowing to Tamil Nadu, is in a state of decline. The once perennial river is now a sea of sand, with rocks and bushes dotting the dry river bed. Though Tamil Nadu’s realisation of the Cauvery waters exceeded the 400 tmcft mark for the first time since 1981-82, the Mettur dam, considered the mainstay for farmers in the central parts of the State, now has a storage of less than 16 tmcft against the capacity of 93.47 tmcft. All along the course of the river the ecology stands devastated by human activity. The riverbed is heavily encroached on both sides in several stretches. In Tiruchi, for instance, large chunks of the riverbed have been taken over for construction of residential apartments and hotels. In Poompuhar in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, where the Cauvery meets the sea, one can finally see some water in the river. But, this is the sea water entering the river from its mouth. Sea water ingress has been a major issue facing farmers in Nagapattinam, as the groundwater has turned saline at many places. With the spotlight on the dispute between the two riparian States, not much attention has been paid to the various other life forms that the river sustains. Fishes, otters, birds and butterflies are examples of wildlife which depend on the Cauvery for sustenance. The population of fish species such as the Mahseer has dwindled considerably due to a reduced flow of water in the river. The reduced flow has also caused a spike in pollution levels. Though people often take dips in the shallow waters of the Cauvery, they are perhaps unaware that faecal coliform levels in the water are prohibitively high, making the water unfit for bathing.
Once a major water source for Lucknow, the Gomti river and its marine life is almost dead now, consumed by the high pH levels in it. Reckless groundwater extraction, sewage waste disposal and dumping of municipal waste on its riverbanks are the major challenges facing the State authorities. While the Uttar Pradesh government did launch a ₹15-crore riverfront development project to rein in the damage between 2015 and 2017, the project got stalled after financial irregularities were revealed in its execution. Ecologists believe that the project has proved to be detrimental after the construction of diaphragm walls on its banks damaged its natural flow and self-cleaning capacity.
Flowing through Hyderabad, the Musi river divides the historic old city and the new city. The Musi riverfront, which was inspired by London’s Thames during the Nizam’s rule, is now a dumping ground for many and slowly disappearing due to a heavy drought. People have started digging pits in Musi’s dry riverbeds amid critical water shortages. Rapid urbanisation and scores of chemical and drug companies that sprang up in and around Hyderabad under the ‘Genome Valley Project’ of 1999 had also reduced it to one of the most polluted rivers in the country, choking with untreated chemical and sewage waste and debris. Attempts by consecutive governments to clean up the river have fallen flat. A report by the Telangana State Pollution Control Board reveals that the levels of coliform bacteria haven’t changed much since 2007, and may have also increased in some cases.
Once an integral part of the socio-economic life and culture of Chennai, the Cooum river today is a 72-kilometre-long floating trash can, with as much as one lakh tonnes of waste dumped in it. This, along with the Adyar river and Buckingham Canal are the three major waterways that pass through Chennai. Chronic water shortage in a city surrounded by three major waterways, and thousands of waterbodies in neighbouring districts, is ironic, and reflects the degenerating impact of urbanisation over the city’s natural resources. This year, the scramble for water has started much earlier than usual as Chennai district ended with a 57% deficit in Northeast monsoon rain in 2016. According to UN-Water, about 50% of the world’s population live in cities and this is bound to increase to 70% by 2050. The global water demand too is set to go up by 50% in two decades. This is especially significant for a city like Chennai, which is facing one of its worst water crises. While Chennai Metrowater is planning to tap water from new resources, abandoned quarries or agricultural wells and smaller water bodies, residents are already thinking of sinking deeper borewells.
A major source of drinking water for over 30 lakh residents of Thane and Raigad districts in Maharashtra, the Ulhas river is dying a slow death. Although the river originates from Lonavla’s Western Ghats, it turns green just before reaching Mumbai and joins the Arabian sea as a smelly creek, an earlier report published by The Hindu revealed. With untreated industrial and sewage waste discharged directly into the river by heavy industrial belts situated around it, the Ulhas is now called a ‘nullah’ (drain) by people around the locality. Small villages like Khandpe, Sangavi, Adivali, Newali, Avalas and Palasdhari Newali still use its water for cultivation. In April this year, the Supreme Court had come down heavily on the Maharashtra government for failing to restore the river even after being directed to sanction a Rs. 100- crore- project to restore Ulhas and Waldhuni rivers.