Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

INDIA: Untreated Sewage Turns Yamuna Into River of Death

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jun 21 2002 (IPS) - Scientists see the phenomenon this week of thousands of dead fish washing up on the shores of the Yamuna river, that flows past the capital city and provides its 13 million inhabitants with 70 percent of their drinking water, as an ominous sign that the river had turned dangerously toxic from untreated sewage.

Although most of the fish seem to have died along the stretch of the river between the mediaeval Mughal city of Sikandra and Agra, site of the famed Taj Mahal, scientists at the government’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) said the problem starts in Delhi and further upstream in northern Haryana state.

According to R.C. Trivedi, a scientist at the CPCB, what caused the fish to die were the large quantities of organism-rich sludge that had formed at the bottom of the river, thanks to untreated sewage which when disturbed starve the fish of dissolved oxygen.

“Until the water in the Yamuna is cleaned properly using Sewage Treatment Plants the raw sewage will continue building up oxygen-depriving sludge that will move up from the bottom of the river by disturbances such as intense rainfall during the monsoons and by uncontrolled release of water from the barrages,” Trivedi said.

The chairman of the CPCB, Dilip Biswas, has asked authorities controlling the barrages at Delhi to ensure smooth flow of water and avoid sudden releases that could disturb the sludge at the bottom of the river.

“The oxygen levels at some points have already gone down to zero it will take some time to re-oxygenate the water,” Biswas said on Friday. He said the river needs to be dredged to clear it of accumulated alluvium and toxic chemical sediments, which hamper smooth flow of water and contribute to the build up of sludge.

Environmental groups have been more critical of the situation than Biswas and have for long been complaining that the river has been mercilessly turned into a giant sewerage drain by Delhi’s residents who daily pump into it some 1.8 billion litres of raw, untreated sewage.

Some residents of the city are not overly concerned because water for drinking is drawn at Wazirababd, where the river makes its entry into the city while the 18 drains that carry sewage into it are further downstream.

But following a Supreme Court order to clean up the river, civic authorities launched in April a 140 million U.S. dollar action plan covering the northern states of Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, laying emphasis on public awareness and public participation in pulling the river back from the brink of ecological disaster.

In a ruling in November last year, the court directed the Delhi state government to ensure that no untreated sewage entered the river by March 2003 since present evidence showed that its waters were serious public health hazard.

The court’s orders were based on statistics provided by the CPCB which said while the permissible level of coliform bacteria is 5,000 per 100 millilitres of water, according to national standards the levels exceeded 70 million at some points on the river bank as it passed through Delhi.

More deadly counts of deadly faecal coliform were found in samples taken at Nizamuddin, a congested area, where 10 million per 100 millilitres were recorded, although according to prescribed standards this should be zero.

The action plan supported partially by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation involves construction of community toilet complexes, sewage treatment plants and crematoria for disposal of dead bodies often dumped into the river in Delhi.

About 32 million dollars of the money is to be spent in the first phase of the plan till the end of the year.

So far, the visible results of the action plan, consists mostly of a “mobile publicity van” doing the rounds of the city with pamphlets and loudspeakers urging people not to contaminate the river and people like Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dixit, standing on its banks gingerly scooping out sludge and discarded polythene bags with poles.

Apart from the making sure that the sewage load in the river is reduced, the action plan also involves the construction of combined effluent treatment plants (CETPs) for Delhi’s industrial factories, many of which were ordered closed down last year by the Supreme Court.

According to Ravi Kant Verma, chief of the Delhi State Industrial Development Corp, the industrial sludge that comes out of these CETPs of them will be dumped in landfill sites rather than in the river.

The combined efforts should benefit some 60 million people who depend on the river for their drinking water needs, according to the Delhi-based National River Conservation Directorate, which is responsible for cleanup efforts in the country.

Iqbal Malik who runs Vatavaran, a leading environmental non-government organisation, calls the government’s efforts “cosmetic exercises” because of the sheer size of the problem. “Pictures of government officials picking up polythene bags from the banks of the Yamuna are gimmicks,” she said.

“The government should be busy setting up sewage treatment plants and ensuring that industrial units do not pump effluents into the river but there is no political will for this,” she said, adding that over the next 20 years Delhi would turn into a desert because the Yamuna would simply have disappeared by then.

She pointed to the failure of the even more grandiose Ganga Action Plan launched in 1985 at the cost of 13 million dollars. A recent study showed that the amount of sewage flowing into the Ganga has doubled since 1985 and that government audits have shown that its funds were being regularly siphoned off.

The Yamuna and Ganga originate in the Himalayas and flow parallel to each other until they meet at a their confluence in the holy city of Allahabad, site of the Kumbh Mela, or ritual bathing.

A Kumbh Mela held last year drew a record 40 million people and was said to have been the world’s greatest ever gathering.

A third river, the Saraswati, is believed by historians to have once also joined the confluence at Allahabad but dried up 4,000 years ago for unknown reasons.

Because Hindu culture is said to have originated on the banks of the Saraswati, much money and effort is being poured by the present pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government into tracing its course using such devices as satellite imagery.

Critics say that the money and man hours might be better spent protecting existing rivers and preventing them from drying up as well.

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