Unholy treatment to holy river

About the only source of water in the capital is the Yamuna river. And Delhi is a perfect example of killing a river. Whatever water scarcity Delhiites are facing is only because of disrespect to the river and inability to understand and spread awareness about the precious natural resource. 

Only two per cent of the river touches the capital and in return it gets more than 60 per cent of pollutants. But it quenches the thirst of 1.6 crore Delhiites.

The Chandrawal and Wazirabad water treatment plants supply freshwater to most areas of Delhi and their primary source of raw water is the Yamuna. The water treatment plants can only get freshwater from neighbouring Haryana because as the river enters Delhi, it virtually transforms into a drain that carries tonnes of untreated industrial and human waste. The colour of the river changes from blue to black in Delhi.

The Delhi Jal Board, which supplies water across the city, can produce 850 million gallons a day (MGD) of drinkable water against the total demand of over 1,000 MGD. Despite its efforts, human waste from 95 per cent of unauthorised colonies goes directly into the river without getting treated. All the 27 sewage treatment plants of the DJB are not enough to keep Yamuna water clean.

“Water supply has increased from 591 MGD in 1998 to 850 MGD in 2013. Sewage treatment has almost doubled from 284 MGD in 1998 to 545 MGD in 2013,” a senior Delhi government official says.

Of the 850 MGD that DJB supplies to the city, 305 MGD goes directly, untreated into the river after being used. This is apart from the additional 200 MGD of sewage water from colonies not supplied by DJB.

The dependence on neighbouring states leads to frequent water shortages. The Wazirabad and Chandrawal water treatment plants can only purify raw water with an ammonia level of 0.2 ppm (parts per million). In January 2014, the two plants were forced to curtail supply to 50 per cent when Haryana dumped untreated waste into the Yamuna, resulting in a sudden rise in ammonia level. It also triggered a water crisis in many parts of Delhi.

Apart from repeated inflow of polluted water, the neighbouring state also owes 80 MGD water to Delhi – under the terms of the contract signed at the time of construction of the Munak Canal in Haryana. 

Delhi had invested hundreds of crores in the project for this share of water. But Haryana government refused to supply it, citing water crisis in its own cities. At least two water treatment plants in Delhi are now lying dry due to unavailability of water.

Another problem with the DJB is unavailability of a mechanism to detect leakages and water theft from its pipelines. Thousands of litres of precious drinkable water get wasted through leakages across the city. Many of these are made intentionally to steal water, and 50 MGD of drinkable water gets wasted every day due to leakages in pipelines.

Magsaysay award winning environmentalist Rajendra Singh, who is also known as the “waterman of India’, says ignoring the river may lead to shifting of the capital somewhere else.

“If we don’t take this matter seriously today, tomorrow may be too late. Fatehpur Sikri was once the capital of India, but it was shifted to Delhi due to water crisis. Now, if we continue to ignore our precious river, we will have to find a new place to shift the population,” he tells Deccan Herald.

Singh says the ignorance of both national parties – BJP and Congress – led to such a situation in the capital.

“The riverbeds of Yamuna were called Indraprastha. This means where the Indra (god of rain) falls. The sand of Yamuna river is unique and one of its kind. It can absorb water about 40 per cent of its weight. But the government has failed to stop construction on the riverbed,” he says.

“Akshardhham Temple, Commonwealth Games Village, Yamuna Bank Metro station and many other government-backed constructions on the riverbed led to a steep fall in underground water level in the city,” he adds.

Out of the total 850 MGD, the DJB supplies 100 MGD of groundwater daily to the city through pump stations. Despite the ban on drawing groundwater through powerful pumps, it is the primary source of drinking water in several unauthorised colonies.The trifurcation of the river in Haryana, after which a massive part of the river water is diverted to canals in UP and Haryana, makes the river narrower in Delhi.

“If the neighbouring state releases some more water to Delhi, the condition of the river may become better. In an agreement on March 12, 1996 Haryana was bound to take care of the flow of the river after Hathini Kund barrage. But the water being released is not sufficient to clean the river,” Singh says.

Illegal mining has led to Yamuna becoming shallow in Delhi and neighbouring states. “All builders and contractors of Delhi use sand from the Yamuna for construction work and it comes from illegal mining. Hardly any action has been taken against the mining mafia. The law enforcers are so ignorant that they don’t even know the laws against mining,” he says.

Simple steps can help

Singh says simple initiatives can change the situation. He suggests planting of Panchavati trees along the riverbed.

“The Panchvati trees, which include Banyan, Peepal, Neem, Kadamb and Sycamore, should be planted on the banks of the river. The roots of these trees have a unique quality of purifying the water,” he adds.

The 17 major drains of Delhi, which go directly into the river, should be separated and sewage treatment plants installed. The water that we get from the sewage treatment plants can be used for gardening, farming and industrial purposes, he says.

“We have to ensure the ecological flow of the river. The authorities should allow farming on the upper area of the riverbed with organic fertilisers. It will also help in cleaning the river,” he adds.

The Yamuna’s riverbed in Delhi should be declared an eco-sensitive zone and divided into three layers – blue, green and red land. The rules of ecological conservation should be imposed on these areas, he says.

Awareness and sensitisation

Lack of awareness about rivers is making the younger generation ignorant about the problems. NGOs and activists are working towards making environment a mandatory subject in school syllabus. 

Some NGOs have approached the Delhi government with ideas for creating awareness among schoolchildren.

“Some NGOs have approached with a new concept of Green Bath. This is being practiced in schools in Japan to tell students about the importance of nature. It is a kind of meditation where students are asked to feel lush green trees and rivers with pure water around them. We forwarded the file to the higher authorities for their perusal,” a senior Delhi environment department official says.

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