Ecologic Environment

Beyond Ganga and Yamuna: replicating a successful river cleanup

Untreated sewage has been stopped from going into the rivers   | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCK

It’s a sea of humanity. The largest gathering of people on earth. The Kumbh Mela, a festival for salvation for the faithful, is centred around water. The gathering this year in Allahabad (renamed Prayagraj) is remarkable for one thing: the Ganga and Yamuna, at their confluence, are not polluted at all. For those who have visited the Kumbh on earlier occasions, this is a pleasant surprise.

Over the past couple of decades, the Kumbh, which is held in Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, had one defining characteristic. Except at Haridwar, where the swiftly flowing Ganga enters the plains from the Himalayas, the rivers stank.

The previous Kumbh was held in Ujjain and the Kshipra River was dirty, and a foul smell assaulted those who bathed in it. This was despite government efforts that included diverting water from the Narmada to keep the Kshipra flowing freely.

Clear waters

In contrast, the Allahabad Mela was sparkling clean. Although this time round it is an Ardh (half) Kumbh, the State government has tried to make the event a success in an election year. But, whatever the motivation, the authorities’ efforts to control pollution deserves praise.

One of the main contributors to river pollution in India is the entry of untreated sewage. In Allahabad, some 270 million litres of sewage once flowed into the two rivers every day through 46 drains. With new sewage treatment plants, boosting capacity at existing ones and using technology such as bio-filters and bio-remediation, the authorities stopped untreated sewage going into the Ganga and Yamuna.

As a result, the biological oxygen demand, an indicator of water quality, dropped to healthy levels. The temporary shuttering of polluting industries in Kanpur, upstream of Allahabad, helped in keeping the pollution levels low too.

The funds for this exercise came from Namami Gange, a scheme to clean up the Ganga and its tributaries. The programme, earlier iterations of which started as far back as 1986 in the form of the first Ganga Action Plan, has been widely criticised for failing in its objectives miserably despite billions being spent on it.

Work well done

The point, however, is that it is indeed possible to clean long stretches of a river if there is sufficient administrative will, and despite the systemic obstacles. It now remains to be seen whether the good work done in Allahabad is carried out after the Kumbh is over too.

We have in the past 50 years or so managed to pollute most of the country’s rivers. The Central Pollution Control Board says that 275 rivers out of the 445 it monitors are highly polluted. Pollution in the Damodar River in eastern India has reached a critical point. More that 60% of the water in the Narmada, a lifeline for Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, is unfit for drinking. In the south, the Cauvery’s water is so toxic in some stretches that it is unfit even for irrigation.

The situation is severe but can still be remedied as we see from the successful in Allahabad, but we must broaden our scope from a single-minded focus on the Ganga and its tributaries.

As a first step, it is entirely possible to treat urban sewage, which would by itself reduce the pollution load in rivers significantly. Millions of Indians consider the Ganga a holy river. But other rivers, for people living by them, are no less sacred and deserve equal treatment.

The writer is Managing Editor of Follow him on Twitter @scurve

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 9:42:33 PM |

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