Delhi's dirty Yamuna river getting dirtier

Posted: 25 April 2007

The Yamuna is one of India's holy rivers, passing Krishna's play ground and feeding the mighty Ganges. But despite the fortune that has been spent trying to clean its passage through Delhi, it remains dirtier than ever, says one of India's leading environmental pressure groups.

Delhi has spent over 15 billion rupees (£183 m.) on cleaning the Yamuna in the years to 2006. Or, some 700 million rupees (£8.5 m.) per km in the 22-km stretch of the river as it passes through the city. But in spite of this investment, the river Yamuna runs dirtier. "There is obviously something fundamentally wrong in the way we are managing our river cleaning programmes. Our planners believe in spending money without understanding the connection between sewage and its disposal and river pollution," said Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

She was speaking at the release this month of CSE's latest publication, Sewage Canal: How to Clean the Yamuna and the release of a 32-minute video on the subject, Faecal Attraction: Political Economy of Defecation, which explodes various myths about river cleaning. "The film is our way of connecting the river to our water and sewage," says its director, Pradip Saha.

Becoming dirtier

"The Yamuna has become dirtier, and so have the towns along its stretch. And Delhi is its biggest polluter, followed by Agra, Ghaziabad and Faridabad. The Yamuna's 22-km stretch in Delhi is barely 2 per cent of the length of the river, but contributes over 70 per cent of the pollution load," said S V Suresh Babu, deputy coordinator, river pollution campaign at CSE.

Yamuna
Yamuna
The 22 km stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi contributes 70 per cent of the total pollution load of the river. © CSE
Delhi, with only 5 per cent of the nation's urban population, has 40 per cent of India's sewage treatment capacity, but remains as dirty as ever. The river, in fact, is relatively clean until it enters Delhi at Wazirabad. It leaves the city transformed into a murky sewer.

In Delhi, the river has virtually no freshwater for nine months. Delhi impounds all its water at Wazirabad, where the dammed up river practically ceases to exist; what flows subsequently is only sewage and waste from Delhi's 22 drains. There is just no water available to dilute this waste.

Pollution levels in the Yamuna have risen 2.5 times between 1980 and 2005. BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) load has increased 2.5 times between 1980 and 2005 - from 117 tonnes per day in 1980 to 276 tonnes in 2005. Measures of dissolved oxygen - used to check if the river is alive - in the relatively clean upper segments are falling, indicating an increase in organic pollution. By the time the river is midway through Delhi, the total coliform count is so high that it is difficult to count the zeroes. Pesticides and heavy metals are also present in the river.

In fact, the river does not meet minimum standards for bathing even after treatment. There has been no change in pollution levels in Delhi since 1996. On April 10, 2001, the Supreme Court directed that oxygen levels were to be maintained at a minimum concentration of 4 mg/l - but five years later, the river is still dead.

It is clear that all the money spent to clean the Yamuna has literally flown down the drain, say the writers of Sewage Canal. In spite of that, in 2006, the Delhi government submitted another grand 40 billion rupee proposal under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Investment not enough

Pollution of the river is directly linked to the inefficient water planning and management in Delhi, says CSE. They say the planners have no clue about how much water the city uses, and neither do they know how much waste the city generates. It is not surprising, therefore, that the growth in sewage treatment capacity has not kept pace with the increase in population and waste. Treatment capacity has increased almost eight-fold in the last 40 years, but wastewater generation has grown 12-fold in the same period.

"We also suffer from under-utilisation. Only 68 per cent of the city's sewage treatment capacity is utilised," says Suresh. The reasons are many: sewage has to be transported over long distances for treatment, through largely defunct conveyance systems. In 2001, only 15 per cent of Delhi's sewerage system was functional. On top of this, almost 45 per cent of Delhi lives in unauthorised colonies, generating 'illegal' sewage, which is unaccounted for.

CSE says the sheer mindlessness of Delhi's pollution control efforts is evident from one example: a major portion of whatever Delhi manages to treat is released back into the city's drains. This treated effluent mixes with untreated and 'illegal' waste flowing in from large parts of the city, thereby nullifying all efforts to clean it. Also, efforts at reuse have been completely insufficient.

Revival plan

"What we need is to maximise the use of the existing treatment facilities and ensure reuse of treated effluents," says Narain. All waste - legal and illegal, sewered and unsewered - must be trapped and treated and not mixed with untreated sewage. Centralised sewage treatment plants cannot be the only option - the cost of transporting waste to the treatment facility and transporting treated effluent back to the point of reuse makes them too expensive to run. Therefore, treatment facilities need to be constructed close to the source of sewage generation.

Based on these principles, a detailed plan for the top six drains of the city, which contribute 90 per cent of the pollution in the river, should be made and implemented.

Simultaneously, steps should also be taken to achieve dilution in the river - mainly by reducing the city's demand for freshwater. The river needs water for a minimum flow to keep it alive. Fiscal instruments - like taxing water-guzzling flush toilets - can work.

Simultaneously an attempt needs to be made to revive the waterbodies and their catchment areas to store maximum run-off, which could then be used for local water needs or could be released into the river for dilution.

"We must remember that whatever amount of waste we manage to treat will be inadequate, and the technology to treat the waste is hugely expensive. It will be a battle which we will never win if we continue fighting it the way that we have been doing all this while. The only way out is to rethink our approach," says Narain.

Link:CSE - with links to a presentation and trailer on the report.