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In India: sacred rites in the polluted Yamuna River

A tributary of the Ganges, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in India and, undoubtedly, in the world. While devout Hindus celebrated the festival of Chhath Puja in November, a new wave of foam most likely originating from industrial discharges, invaded its waters. This pollution of the water follows on the heels of the layer of air pollution above New Delhi.

The second largest tributary of the Ganges, with a length of 1,200 km, the Hindu religion venerates the Yamuna under the name “Goddess Yamuna”. According to Hindu mythology, she is the daughter of the Sun and the sister of Yama, the “God of Death”. People habitually bathe in its sacred waters to purify themselves of their sins; the last rites of the dead are also practised on its banks. Many families come to celebrate the goddess by making offerings during the four days of the Hindu festival of Chhath, which takes place at the beginning of November.

Its importance is not only cultural. It irrigates a very fertile alluvial plain: more than 50 million people take out their subsistence and income from it. It also supplies 70% of Delhi’s drinking water.

REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

This year the celebration gave rise to images that were as spectacular as they were dramatic: while the Indian capital and its surroundings were already grappling with a thick toxic fog, the river was transformed into a huge foam bath in which thousands of people had come to bathe. A toxic foam had spread in the river and the water supply to parts of New Delhi had to be cut off.

The local authorities pointed to a “considerable influx of wastewater and industrial waste” that had occurred upstream the week before. This was not the first time: these foam episodes recur every year. In 2020, a government report estimated that the quality of the water in the river had considerably worsened over the five previous years.


Pollution with multiple causes


The cause of the pollution is the direct discharge into the river of more than half the wastewater of urban areas. Submerged by a growing population, New Delhi treats about two thirds of its wastewater though sometimes only partially. Moreover, hundreds of millions of litres still pour into the Yamuna without treatment, leading to high phosphate concentrations that can form layers of toxic foam on the surface of the water.

The industries located in the densely urbanised watershed discharge heavy metals like iron into the river. 44 million litres of industrial effluent are discharged daily. Plastic is the most recent source of pollution, despite the prohibition of single-use plastics since 2017. Delhi produces 251,674 tonnes of plastic waste a year, of which 50% is single use. It enters the river via open drains into which the inhabitants discard their waste.

New York Times

Actions remain insufficient


The authorities have promised to clean the Yamuna for a long time. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the last few decades but with little to show in terms of results.

The Yamuna Action Plan (YAP), part of the major Ganga Action Plan (GAP), was launched in 1993 with the financial and political support of Japan. Considered as the largest restoration project in India, above all intended to improve water quality, it has been carried out in three successive phases. Phase III, still in progress, provides for the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) in Okhla and the renovation and upgrading of the WWTPs at Kondli and Rithala in the Delhi region.

Fifteen towns along the Yamuna are involved in a purification campaign started in 2018 by the Ministry of Public Health. Sewage plants and drainage infrastructures should allow better control over the raw wastewater discharged into the river.

As is often the case, administrative and political pusillanimity prevent efficient action. The fact that the Yamuna forms the border between Delhi and the State of Uttar Pradesh complicates the deployment of a massive cleaning plan.

According to Avinash Mishra, chief advisor on water resources and land in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the problem of water quality could have major impacts on the country’s economy and the health of its population if it is not dealt with more efficiently: “There is a shortage as soon as the water is contaminated, which has an impact on the working days of the people”, he declared. “It gives rise to so many waterborne diseases that it affects our services, our industries, urbanisation and the living conditions of our population”.

Above all, the city must change its attitudes to water. For Sushmita Sengupta, a geologist and the head of the senior programme at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi, the basic problem comes from the fact that “we extract everything and in return, we only render wastewater” (article from the New York Times, 11/11/2021).

Civil society is organising itself: the NGO Earth5R is working with local communities to set up projects based on the circular economy. Its aim? Reduce discharges of wastes and encourage their collection.



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