Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Rivers in distress

A river is a natural, living, organic whole, a hydrological and ecological system. It flows; that is its defining characteristic. As it flows, it performs many functions. It supports aquatic life and vegetation; provides drinking water to human beings, their livestock and wildlife; influences the micro-climate; recharges groundwater; dilutes pollutants and purifies itself; sustains a wide range of livelihoods; transports silt and enriches the soil; maintains the estuary in a good state; provides the necessary freshwater to the sea to keep its salinity at the right level; prevents the incursion of salinity from the sea; provides nutrients to marine life; and so on. It is also an integral part of human settlements, their lives, landscape, society, culture, history, and religion.

Unfortunately, most people think of a river simply as a channel carrying water. It is this limited perception that enables the engineer to regard a river as a pipeline to be manipulated at will, and the economist to regard it merely as the source of a marketable commodity for human use and trade. Abstraction of water from rivers is regarded as ‘use,’ and in-stream flows, particularly flows to the sea, are regarded as ‘waste.’ Industry thinks of a river not merely as a source from which water can be extracted for its use, but also as a drain into which its waste can be discharged. Large farmers want dams and canals to be built for diverting water for irrigation. Agricultural run-off, containing residues of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, pollutes and contaminates rivers and aquifers. Construction workers regard the river-bed as a source for construction material, i.e., sand. Builders, developers, ordinary people wanting to own houses, industry and commerce looking for land, even urban planners and governments, tend to look longingly upon the floodplains of a river as so much land lying unused. Floods with which people in earlier times had learnt to live with and derive some benefit from are now regarded as disasters to be controlled; their destructive power has indeed increased because of extensive occupation of the floodplains.

“Saving rivers will have to be part of saving our world and ourselves.”

The engineering-cum-economic approach is aggravated by what lies behind it, namely the driving force of what has come to be called ‘development,’ meaning the multiplication of wants, the aspiration for ever-rising ‘standards of living,’ and the obsession with ‘growth.’ Driven by that force we genuflect before the twin gods of consumption and production. This is what Mahatma Gandhi called ‘greed.’ His oft-quoted observation may be recalled here: “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for anyone’s greed.” Greed, so defined, doubtless created the spectacular world that we live in (and glorify by the name of ‘civilisation’), but it is also destroying that world; it makes unsustainable drafts on natural resources and at the same time pollutes the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, and devastates our habitat.

The results are there for all to see. Rivers have always been worshipped in India, and yet they are in a deplorable state today. Many rivers in the country are declining or dying. It is difficult to find living, healthy rivers, and even the few that exist are under threat of decline. The decline of the Yamuna is a striking illustration of these trends. The Yamuna is a 1400 km-long river system with around 30 tributaries contributing to the making of what was once a perennial and sacred river that was part of our mythology (the Krishna lore and the Mahabharata epic) and history (ancient cities of Delhi, Mathura and Agra standing on it). Today, the river is no more than a sewer. The water quality of the river in the city at zero (0) Dissloved Oxygen (DO) is so bad that not even a turtle can be found in it against a large number of crocodiles and turtles that the river harboured in early twentieth-century. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, some 3500 MLD (million litres per day) of a toxic cocktail of sewage and industrial waste enters the river in Delhi through some 22 drains entering the river. After an investment of almost Rs 5000 crores in the creation of Sewage Treatment Plants, electric crematoriums, toilets, and ghats at a number of places in Haryana, Delhi, and UP, the position is that the heavily polluted stretch of the river has actually increased from the previous 500 km to the present 600 km from Panipat to Etawah. So, what has gone wrong? Can the creation of more pollution abatement infrastructure in Delhi revive the river? The answer is a clear no.

The existing infrastructure, once made fully operational, will indeed help to some extent, but only if adequate flow in the river is maintained all year. In 1999, the Supreme Court had mandated the maintenance of at least 10 cumec (360 cusec) at all times throughout the river. For 360 cusec to flow in the river at Etawah, where the river Chambal meets and revives river Yamuna, there must be at least 1000 cusec flowing in the river downstream of Delhi. Given human greed, this seems a pipe-dream.

Another matter that deserves attention is the security of the river’s floodplains. Against an expert mandated norm of at least a 5 km-wide floodplain between the embankments, nowhere in the National Capital Territory of Delhi is the available floodplain more than 3.5 km. Clearly, the city is ill-equipped to deal with the flood fury when it strikes the city periodically, as it will. Even this floodplain has been invaded by ill-conceived constructions by public authorities and private agencies, such as the Akshardham temple complex, the Metro Depot, Bus Depot, Commonwealth Games village, and power plants.

Nothing less than a major transformation of our ideas of development and civilisation will save our rivers. Saving rivers will have to be part of saving our world and ourselves. One despairs of seeing such a transformation actually taking place, but its failure to happen will have consequences that no one will want to contemplate, and that gives one a faint hope for the future.

Image Credit: “INDIA” by frederik_rowing. CC By NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Mike Taylor

    A well thought out excerpt from the book. Modern society often sees profits in the floodplain. A flat building site, how many houses and factories can we build? And as the author states, the bankers and investors are shocked when a flood of water reclaims what truly belongs to nature.

  2. ashutosh kumar

    Truly presented hard and real facts that entire nation will have to suffer if we neglect our rivers no company and investment and money will repay the loss of rivers and damage which will come after rivers get polluted we will loose life as well country . It is peak time to save our rivers from so called sustainable development we cannot sustain through waters of bottled bisleri or aquafina (do’nt take it as defamation it is only personal comment) for long run.

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