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How clean are India’s rivers?

Steena Joy
·Contributor
·5-min read

International Rivers Action Day celebrated every year on March 14 is a day dedicated to solidarity – when diverse communities around the world come together with one voice to say that rivers matter. That communities having access to clean and flowing water matters. That everyone should have a say in decisions that affect their water and their lives.

Stretching from the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal, it provides water to nearly half a billion people, more than any other river in the world
Stretching from the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges provides water to nearly half a billion people, more than any other river in the world

India is a riverine country. It has 14 major rivers, 44 medium rivers and 55 minor rivers besides numerous lakes, ponds and wells which are used as primary source of drinking water even without treatment. Most of the rivers being fed by monsoon rains, which is limited to only three months of the year. They run dry throughout the rest of the year. But they often end up carrying wastewater discharges from industries or cities/towns endangering the quality of our scarce water resources.

India ranks 120th among 122 countries on the Water Quality Index published by the United Nations Environment Programme Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS)/Water Programme.

When we talk of river pollution in India, the first name that comes to mind is the Ganges. However, it is River Yamuna, a tributary of the River Ganga, which is the most polluted river of India - getting polluted especially around New Delhi with garbage and industrial sewage.

River Yamuna, a tributary of the River Ganga, is the most polluted river of India - getting polluted especially around New Delhi with garbage and industrial sewage
River Yamuna, a tributary of the River Ganga, is the most polluted river of India - getting polluted especially around New Delhi with garbage and industrial sewage

As for the Ganga, it is not only a holy river to the Hindus but also one of the bedrocks of Indian civilisation, with its watershed covering 10 Indian states, namely Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Stretching from the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal, it provides water to nearly half a billion people, more than any other river in the world.

Over the years, the numerous cremation rituals on its banks, unplanned urban and industrial growth, and sewage and chemical effluents had made this an international concern. Which compelled the Indian government to take up the challenging task of cleaning it up.

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Action plans

The Ganga Action Plan was first initiated by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 but it hardly met success. Later the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) was set up under the Ministry of Jal Shakti.

In June 2014, PM Modi initiated the Namami Gange Programme, an Integrated Conservation Mission, approved as ‘Flagship Programme’ by the Union Government with budget outlay of Rs.20,000 crore to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of River Ganga.

While in-situ methods (i.e. water sample testing) provide accurate data, they are often labour-intensive and thus not time/cost-effective. Furthermore, monitoring the entire river from a one-time/single dataset is quite difficult. Geospatial datasets/techniques are thus valuable tools in water quality studies, being widely used to measure parameters like suspended sediments, coloured dissolved organic matter, turbidity, BOD, COD, chlorophyll-a and sea surface temperature.

In order to eliminate problems associated with manual water quality monitoring, India’s pollution monitoring body, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has installed hi-tech ‘Real Time Water Quality Monitoring Network’ across Ganga Basin for testing ten parameters of water quality.

Ironically, according to the CPCB, the nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25 last year has helped improve the water quality of River Ganga. Pictures of pristine clear waters of the Ganges were enthusiastically shared on social media a few weeks into the lockdown. The CPCB said the water had even become fit for bathing in some areas, according to real-time monitors placed along the 2,575 km (1,600-mile)-long river.

A recent analysis by the Delhi Pollution Control Board found that the quality of the Yamuna River has also improved during the lockdown. The report cited a decrease in runoffs from 28 industrial clusters and less trash.

Priorities for Governments in Water Quality Management

• Invest in technology for improved risk assessment, monitoring, information and communication

• Improve cooperative water basin management to increase development opportunities and reduce potential for conflict

• Create joint environmental management and scientific assessments, because they are opportunities for building trust and cooperation.

Know Your Rivers

In India, the Sapta Sindhu or the seven sacred rivers are the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Krishna, Brahmaputra and Narmada.

  • Spurting from the majestic Gangotri Glacier in the Western Himalayas, River Ganga (Ganges) is among the largest rivers in the country. Bhagirathi, as it is called in Uttarakhand from where it originates, streams till Devprayag, and merges with Alaknanda to form the Ganga river.

  • Where this mighty river meets with River Yamuna, the second holiest river of India originating from the Yamunotri Glacier, the sangam or confluence at Prayagraj, is a much-worshipped point where devotees take a dip into the waters with a belief that it would absolve them of their sins. Prayagraj is also the site of the renowned Kumbh Mela. River Ganga drains into the Sundarbans delta in the Bay of Bengal, creating the largest river delta in the world, with River Brahmaputra.

  • The Brahmaputra finds its source in the Himalayas in Tibet. Encompassing the state of Assam, the river is home to many beautiful islands like Majuli, one of the largest riverine islands.

  • The second largest river in the country, Godavari, originates from Trimbak. This spot has been consecrated by the famous Trimbakeshwar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The fertile basin of River Godavari and Krishna, the fourth longest river, is the nesting site of the rare Olive Ridley turtles.

  • Streaming into the striking Shivasamudram Falls, the second biggest waterfall in India, River Cauvery or Kaveri, originates from the Brahmagiri Hill in the Western Ghat. Traversing the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the river falls into the Bay of Bengal.

  • Originating from the Aravalli range in Rajasthan, the Saraswati river, a tributary of Alaknanda river, submerges in the Rann of Kutch. It passes through areas of Patan and Sidhpur.

  • Ensconced in the Amarkantak Hill, in eastern Madhya Pradesh, River Narmada originates from Narmada Kund, a small tank and flows into the Arabian Sea.

Source: Incredible India

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