Rethinking Health of Indian Rivers on World Water Day

Continually, river systems are facing a multitude of threats. Only 37% of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing over their entire length. Moreover, climate change is severely impacting the flow patterns, seasonality of rivers, and water availability in river basins.

Every year 22nd of March is celebrated as World Water Day to raise global awareness about the water crisis. To mark this occasion, we should reflect on the importance and health of our rivers and a host of hidden benefits (ecosystem services) like provision of freshwater organisms, water purification, fertile soil formation, natural flood protection, and recreation, which we derive from the riverine ecosystems.

Continually, river systems are facing a multitude of threats. Only 37% of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing over their entire length. Moreover, climate change is severely impacting the flow patterns, seasonality of rivers, and water availability in river basins. Low flow-like conditions in the rivers and dumping of untreated municipal and industrial wastewater in rivers further degrade river water quality, severely impacting the freshwater ecosystems. During 51 days of coronavirus lockdown, a recent study by IIT Kanpur observed a 50% reduction in heavy metal pollution in the Ganga water due to decreased industrial discharge and increased river flow. This pandemic has shown us that rivers can be cleaned up in a short span of time. We must collectively examine current river management measures and chart a new roadmap for preserving our rivers’ long-term health.

First, an improved understanding of river water quality is essential for better management. A mid-term priority should be to establish a network of data-monitoring infrastructure for our river basins, extending from its main stem to its tributaries. Citizen scientists could also be engaged to increase monitoring efforts to collect high-resolution data at a low cost and increase public participation and awareness. Though the Central Pollution Control Board established a real-time water quality portal for the river Ganga, similar portals need to be created for other river networks in India. Further, pollutant transport models, like the Rhine Alarm model, which can predict the development of pollutant wave downstream and over the river’s width, should be introduced widely for all the river basins. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides laden agricultural runoff to rivers need to be assessed and monitored as well.

Secondly, to protect a river’s health, the Ministry of Jal Shakti should establish minimum flow (environmental flow) standards for all Indian rivers. These standards would systematically manage the quantity, timing, and quality of water flow for sustaining freshwater ecosystems and the well-being of humans. Three pilot studies to assess such flows in Ramganga, Bharatpuzha, and Mahanadi delta were carried out under the India-EU partnership. Similarly, the Yamuna Monitoring Committee ordered a study for the Yamuna river from Hathanikund barrage to Okhla barrage. Such efforts should now be scaled up across the country. Environmental flow assessment has not been completed for the entire stretch of any river in India. Ideally, all river infrastructure-related decisions like interlinking of rivers, construction of hydropower or multipurpose dams, and inland waterways should get a go-ahead after environmental flow assessment and floodplain zoning for the respective river stretch has been completed. 

Thirdly, there will be a renewed priority towards efficient municipal and industrial wastewater collection, treatment, and compliance. Najafgarh drain, a tributary of the river Yamuna in Delhi, brings 60 per cent of the total pollution load to the river. Municipal sewage continues to be a significant contributor to the pollution load in rivers. Many lesser-known tributaries like the Sahibi river (Najafgarh drain) in Delhi, Mithi river in Mumbai, and Bharalu river in Guwahati have become channelised open drains for carrying sewage and solid waste from the cities. If the solid waste managers in cities do not work in tandem with water management officials, water quality in these rivers will continue to remain poor. 

Further, it is critical to regularise already-existing water quality audits for polluting industries that discharge wastewater in rivers. Moreover, industries reusing wastewater should be incentivised, and polluting industries should be mandatorily penalised. Ensuring operational efficiency and regular monitoring of effluent water quality of both sewage treatment plants and Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETP for industrial wastewater) would also be crucial. 

Newer institutional mechanisms should be encouraged to bring about a holistic change in river management. The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach, endorsed by the National Water Mission, must be genuinely embraced to break existing silos. The Ministry of Jal Shakti can establish a data-sharing mechanism between different departments by developing an integrated water policy model.  The model can be used for analysing long-term water supply to various sectors, inter-state water-sharing budgeting, flood risk management, river pollution reduction, and exploring adaptation scenarios in the wake of climate change. 

We must realise that the rivers are not just pipelines for supplying water or open channel drains for dumping wastewater. They are the lifelines of our planet nurturing livelihoods and biodiversity. The key would be to value ecosystem services provided by riverine ecosystems, evaluating trade-offs to implement environmental flows, investing in river monitoring infrastructure, strengthening wastewater management practices, and promoting citizen participation in restoring the riverine ecosystem. This would not only safeguard our rivers but would also open up local job opportunities, boost innovation, and contribute to our national goal of becoming a self-reliant economy. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house