Is toxic Yamuna beyond revival?

The status of the water content of the Yamuna, which was once the primary water source for Delhi, has delved down to such disastrous proportions that a 3 to 4-feet tall, thick foam frothed near Kalindi Kunj for weeks in the month of November this year. This alarming scene is only indicative of the dire condition of the river yet, this is not the first time such a scene has been observed. “The froth generation in the river occurs every year around this time. It arises due to the presence of phosphate and dissolved detergents. When interacting with air, these pollutants precipitate such foam. It has been noticed by the public this time due to the magnitude of the toxic foam that arose this year, but I have observed such an occurrence even 15 years back,” said Ravi Agarwal, Co-Director and Founder of Toxics Link, an environmental NGO dedicated to bring toxics-related information into the public domain. In a discussion with us, he told that even though the froth had brought out the public attention to the Kalindi Kunj stretch of the river, the problem’s extent is far greater than that. “The foam is one particular kind of toxicity. High toxic levels of the river are not area specific but is an omnipresent problem in the Delhi portion of the river,” observed Agarwal.

As the toxic foaming in Yamuna and severe air pollution in Delhi were concurrent, it is not unfair to speculate that there was some correlation between the two. Speaking from a chemical perspective, Ravi Agarwal pointed out that there was no hard evidence of this. “However, it is possible that the increase in some particular pollutant might have been the catalyst in the increase of the foam this year,” he added.

According to their research, the major issue of the growing toxic levels of the river lie elsewhere. The sewage treatment and discharge system in Delhi is not efficient in dealing with the water waste generated by the city. “Firstly, the STPs are not operating at their full capacity. They have maintenance issues, some of them are even defunct. Secondly, not all water that flows in the river is from the drainages. Waste water without any proper prior treatment directly flows in the river too. Another thing is that the STPs are not designed to effectively treat the heavily contaminated sewage of the industries. They are basically designed to remove sludge flowing with the water. Heavy metals get dissolved in the water and hence other measures of segregation must be in place,” he added.

Here, he made it apparent that citizens’ negligence is making the government machinery weak. “The Sewage Treatment Plants have certain parameters under which they could treat the water. If the plants operate on sewage that does not fit their specification, they would incur mechanism losses and get defunct shortly after. The point, however, is why is such heavily contaminated water even entering the STPs? See, in principle, the STPs are supposed to act as a tertiary treatment for sewerage in a three-step treatment plan. Where Delhi lacks is the primary and secondary steps of the sewage treatment. To properly treat our waste water before it enters the Yamuna we need to enforce a strong, decentralized model of treatment where the role of the citizens (who generate the untreatable water) comes into play. Installation of individual effluent treatment plants to pre-treat their sewage before further pushing it to the STPs is a must.”   

Idol immersion is another major issue. Despite the NGT order which banned idol immersion in Yamuna, the authorities were not able to keep compliance with the order.. Substances used in the making of the idols harm the river and hence better preemptive enforcement measures which discourage the people from the practice should have been there. People should come up with and follow alternatives to the mass flowing of idols in the river as the negligence to the river’s health will ultimately deter our health too.

Toxics link conducted a multi season check of the pollutants in the river’s sand bed. During monsoon the toxins flush out as a result of an increased current. But during the non-monsoon seasons, most of the pollutants that sediment at the river bed are heavy metals which come mostly from pesticide drainage. This is deposited due to unchecked irrigation water being flown into the river. Along with industrial and domestic sewage, irrigation waste water is another polluting factor for the river. Regulation of the irrigation is also somewhat ignored to an extent, but its effects are also detrimental to the river.

The laid back approach towards the river has deteriorated its condition to such an extent that it has become incompetent to sustain aquatic life. The million-dollar question, which researches have been trying to find answer for many years, is whether the river could be revived or not. We asked the expert about what the approach to accomplish this should be. “In order to revive the river, there are two things that are needed, technically. Firstly, the sewage that drains in to the Yamuna should be adequately treated. Secondly, adequate flow must be ensured. We are failing in both these departments. During monsoon the current of the river is enough to flush out majority of the toxins from the river’s Delhi stretch. But post monsoon the river water gets sluggish and we are left to deal with the toxins, which turns out to be too much for us to handle.”

In conclusion, it is important that the industries, restaurants, factories and other sources generating waste must install primary waste treatment facility and secondary treatment facility to ensure the waste flowing can be treated by the STPs effectively. Water is a vital resource and managing it in a sustainable fashion is one of our major responsibilities. Therefore, it is high time that we enforce a better, more citizen inclusive sewage management system to save the dying river.

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