Killing the River of Life

by Cynthia Lieu

Imagine yourself walking through the city of Allahabad of North India, crossing the famous Old Naini Bridge that spans the great Yamuna river, a tributary of the Ganges. These waters are sacred to Hindu locals, originating from the lower Himalayas in Uttarakhand, traveling almost 1400 kilometers south, until merging with Ganga. You look out off the bridge into the distance, and are greeted by a spectacular view of a frozen river. The picture-perfect scenery is made complete, dotted with sparkling white clouds of snow and layered with pristine sheets of ice.

While beautiful, this strikes you as odd; how could this be possible in a city in whichwhere temperatures rarely drop below sixty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year?

You walk further across, and down towards the river border where many of the locals gather each morning to perform their daily activities, including washing and bathing. As you near the waters, you smell a reeking stench, and the strong smell of methane burns into your nostrils. Upon closer inspection, you realize, with horror, that the icy piles of what appeared to be pure snow are in fact clouds upon clouds of toxic foam, bubbling and frothing up on the surface. In addition to the appalling buildup of chemical foam, you notice the heaps and heaps of trash and waste, floating in piles that blanket the river.

This is what has become of the Yamuna river, which provides and sustains life for the nearly 57 million locals who depend on its waters for their daily living and religious activities. Shocking images of the river overflowing with waste and the astonishing visuals of chemical foam spilling over the river surface has made it the face of an environmental disaster, revealing a horrific case of water pollution. As of now, the Yamuna is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Shining a spotlight on this case of pollution has exposed the incredibly detrimental effects of industrialy activities and urbanization on the environment combined with the lax enforcement of governmental regulations.

Industrial wastewater, sewage, and toxic substances including heavy metals, toxic metals, and pesticides, flow through the river each day directly from factories and buildings. For instance, the local factories involved in sari mass production release chemical byproducts from the drying process that flow freely into local drains, empty into the Yamuna, then into the food and water supply. As a result, the condition of the river has plummeted, marked as category E by the Central Pollution Control Board, a water quality label that deems it impossible to sustain underwater life as well as being unacceptable for domestic supply standards. Samples of water taken at different points of the river determined that the dissolved oxygen levels were between 0.24 parts per million (ppm) and 0.32 ppm, as compared to healthy DO levels of about 4 ppm. Most aquatic organisms require an environment with a minimum of 4.0-5.0 ppm of dissolved oxygen to even survive. The decay of organic materials from chemical processes or microbial action on the untreated sewage that passes through the Yamuna cause a sharp reduction in the dissolved oxygen levels in water. This severely oxygen-depleted environment is therefore unable to support acceptable living conditions for fish or other aquatic organisms to thrive. As a result, the Yamuna is symbolically considered “dead”, in that it is unable to support any life in its waters.

The Yamuna is a respected body of water in Hindu mythology, and has adopted the name “River of Life”, a name that has slowly lost its meaning over time. The river is the primary setting of an ancient pilgrimage site, to which tens of thousands of pilgrims travel to pray and immerse themselves in its waters, hoping to receive good health and prosperity. “Taking a dip in the Yamuna and drinking its water is a blessing for us”, says one woman during Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings on the planet located at Allahabad, India. A local priest says, “Yes, the Yamuna is polluted, but it has the power to liberate us. If you bathe in the Yamuna you will not go to hell”. A bath at the Triveni Sangam, or in the confluence of the three rivers Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati, is said to flush away one’s sins and free one from the cycle of rebirth.

Yamuna is a goddess, and is considered a giver of life and a living entity, leading locals to ask how can she be left in such a devastating state. Many of the locals are aware of and disheartened by the condition of the river, and one resident remarked “for us, the Yamuna is our mother. To see all this garbage in the water and its current condition- all Hindus feel sadness in their heart”.

In Patti Pachgai village, local residents have already suffered many of the consequences that come from drinking the river water, including joint pain, motor difficulties, bone deformities, and fluoride poisoning. Access to filtered, clean drinking water is rare and of course, expensive, so most continue to rely on the river for their daily activities despite their awareness and understanding of the dangers the polluted waters possess. They endure the side effects of the tainted water, because they have no other choice.

Individuals, local agencies, and activist groups are currently working to combat this pressing environmental issue, to improve the quality of life for all who rely on the Yamuna. Though there are some governmental regulations regarding pollution already in place, they are left mostly unregulated and unenforced. Industrial runoff is not monitored, existing water filters are not serviced properly to provide clean water to residents, and exploding urbanization in the past decades has caused exponential population growth that has only contributed to the river pollution. Delhi Jal Board chairperson Kapil Mishra has committed to taking action to make the river an adequate place to bathe and wash, with a goal of completing this vision in three years. He plans to achieve this by desilting the riverbed and introducing an interceptor sewage project so that sewage from the Najafgarh drain will be treated before entering the river. In addition, The Delhi Development Authority is funding an experiment focused on tending to wetlands by the river to let them thrive and to get the Yamuna floodplain thriving again. So far, approximately 800 million gallons of sewage is generated daily in Delhi from the major sewage drains that dump waste into the river despite the current sewage management capacity to treat 514.2 millions of gallons per day. To manage this issue effectively requires the collaboration of central and state governments to work on river conservation and infrastructure projects. The public and locals must also do their part in making a determined effort to limit the amount of waste produced and dumped in the river.

The high court has ruled the Ganges and Yamuna as living entities, and as living entities they deserve basic human rights. However, the manner in which chemicals and waste continue to be carelessly dumped into the Yamuna is inhumane both to her and the millions that depend on her. With the relatively recent surge in urbanization and population growth in India, industry and manufacturing have become fundamental national and global economic operations. As a nation shifts its focus from the agricultural to the secondary sector, concern for the environment is sometimes disregarded in favor of large-scale industrial ventures, and that neglect is clearly illustrated by the state of the Yamuna. While Mishra and the DDA make national efforts to curb pollution in the Yamuna, we must recognize that management of water pollution and our own waste activities is also a global responsibility. If we can make these first steps towards a solution, we can bring the dead Yamuna, “Giver of Life”, back to life.