India’s misunderstood rivers
The mismanagement, abuse and displacement of water need to be addressed to solve the real crisis in front of us
It’s the time of the year when everyone starts talking about the heat—how hot it was today and what it’s going to be like in the coming days. The forecast by the India Meteorological Department does not bring any comfort. Scientists are predicting a below-normal monsoon because of El Niño, the weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean that induces atmospheric changes which disrupt the progress of monsoon rains.
This means less water for India’s monsoon-dependent crops and its depleting river systems. This is a major cause of worry for the hundreds of millions in India who earn a livelihood from farming. The Indian subcontinent is home to seven major river systems with more than 400 rivers. Many originate from Himalayan glaciers that are retreating due to global warming, and from springs in forest ecosystems, and flow either toward the Bay of Bengal or to the Arabian Sea. Some 80% of India’s population is dependent on 14 major rivers for food and livelihood.
Hit by unseasonal weather, we promptly point the finger at climate change: how excess carbon dioxide—a major component of greenhouse gases—from burning fossil fuels is causing havoc with the weather and altering climatic patterns, making the world a warmer place.
While there is no doubt about the role played by fossil fuels in inducing climate change, the Canadian author, environmentalist and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, Maude Victoria Barlow, suggests there is a missing piece to the climate puzzle that needs to be addressed if we are to properly understand the true nature of the crisis. Blue Planet works to stop commodification of the world’s water.
That missing piece is our abuse, mismanagement and displacement of water.
“What is less understood is that our cavalier treatment of fresh water is also a major cause of climate chaos and global warming and needs to be addressed,” says Barlowe. “If we are to successfully address climate change, it is time to include an analysis of how our abuse of water is an additional factor in the creation of global warming and that any solutions to the crisis must include the protection of water and the restoration of rivers and watersheds.”
In the past many civilizations have perished because of the mismanagement of water resources. Changes in nature don’t happen overnight or in one’s lifetime. “So slowly, oh, so slowly, have the great changes been brought about!” wrote the late American naturalist, John Burroughs, in his book Time and Change (1912).
According to veteran archaeologist Makhan Lal, the vast alluvial plains of northern India as we see them today are the result of continuous deforestation for the past four millennia.
“We have ample evidence of the Gangetic plain being covered with dense monsoon forest,” Lal said.
Today, the Ganga basin is the world’s most populous river basin. The forest has long disappeared and the Ganga has been dammed, over-drained and sullied by sewage as well as industrial waste from the numerous towns and cities which dot the river bank.
Sanwar Lal Jat, minister of state for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, told the Rajya Sabha recently that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had listed 764 grossly polluting industries discharging 501 million litres per day (MLD) of effluents into the Ganga and its tributaries.
The CPCB has also identified 144 drains along the main stem of the Ganga, discharging about 6,614 MLD of sewage. According to CPCB, urban India’s sewage generation for 2015 is estimated to be 62,000 MLD and its sewage treatment capacity is 23,277 MLD with 816 sewage treatment plants.
In June last year, to curb the pollution of the Ganga, the government launched ‘Namami Gange’—an integrated conservation mission. This month, the union cabinet sanctioned Rs.20,000 crore for the project focused on pollution abatement.
But river conservationists are not happy with this initiative. They say the government is just focusing on pollution and trying to find an engineering solution while ignoring the core issue, the ecological problem.
“The government looks at a river as a channel of water and not as an ecosystem service provider. There is no understanding of river hydrology and floodplains, which form diverse habitats for flora and fauna. Here lies the root of the problem,” says Manoj Misra, convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a civil society consortium dedicated to reviving the river Yamuna as an ecosystem.
From bad to worse
According to Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, water in India is a state government subject and water laws are state-based. The state has the constitutional power to make laws, to implement and regulate water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and hydropower.
There is nothing in the constitution or law that shows an understanding of what a river is, what services it provides or the conservation of rivers.
There is no legal protection for rivers in India. This is the reason various legal and institutional measures such as the Water Pollution Act, CPCB, the state pollution control boards, Ganga Action Plan, Yamuna Action Plan and the National River Conservation Plan have yielded no results.
More than two decades ago, the CPCB declared that there is not a single river in the plains of India that has bathing-quality water. “Today, one can imagine it has gone from bad to worse. Even in the mountain, rivers like Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum, Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Gauri Ganga, Mandakini and Teesta are said to be disappearing at most of the locations as hydropower projects divert them into underground tunnels,” says Thakkar. Further, the Indus and Teesta are among the eight mighty rivers of the world that run dry from overuse, according to the National Geographic Society.
The biggest threats to the existence of rivers are big dams, canal diversions, hydropower projects and pollution.
“The diversion of water from dams and barrages has led to agricultural prosperity. This is in tune with the national and state policies which offer top priority for agriculture and drinking water over ecological needs. Policies do not spell out the need and the mechanism for maintaining flows in the rivers to conserve the ecosystem,” says Suresh Babu S.V., director, rivers, wetlands and water policy, at WWF-India.
With no fresh water to support any aquatic life, the Yamuna, a major tributary of the Ganga, has been declared a dead river by the CPCB. The 22-km-stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi is less than 2% of the river’s course but accounts for over 70% of its pollution. According to The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi receives relatively clean water and converts it into a deadly concoction of disease-bearing water for the people who live downstream.
According to CPCB, it is a similar situation with rivers across the subcontinent. In the list of heavily polluted river stretches are the Mithi in Mumbai, the Hindon river in western Uttar Pradesh, Sabarmati in Gujarat, Ghaggar in Punjab and Haryana, Musi in Hyderabad, Godavari in Nasik, Pavana in Pune, Satluj from Ludhiana to Jalandhar, Bhadra in Karnataka, and Adyar and Cooum in Chennai.
Successive governments have ignored river protection and a proposal for a river regulation zone has been gathering dust for over a decade. The new government wants to go against nature and the natural flow of rivers and interlink them to channel water from one place to another.
In April, ignoring the advice of environmentalists and water conservationists, the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation constituted a task force on interlinking of rivers comprising experts and senior officials.
Across the world, over-damming and diversion of rivers have had a severe impact on people and the landscape. Already major rivers are failing to reach the sea—in the US, the Colorado river and the Rio Grande; in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan the Amu Darya; and in China the Yellow River.
Conservationists worry on the same lines that if interlinking of rivers is executed, most of India’s rivers won’t reach the sea, altering vast swathes of estuarine habitat and the lives of people in and around the region.
The quest for water, for need or greed, has blinded us from seeing what a river is; how it flows; the aquatic life and the flora and fauna that inhabit its flood plains; and how it filters and replenishes groundwater. Destroying natural processes has never helped any civilization to prosper, and rivers dying because of dams and pollution is not a good sign.
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