It's time to revive our rivers...

It's time to revive our rivers...

The year 2016 ended with a grim reminder of the dire state of rivers in India. An assessment of 290 rivers spread across 19 states of the country found 205 rivers to be critically polluted, thereby categorising them as ‘red’. This categorisation of rivers was done as part of a larger collaborative exercise of rating the overall health of Indian rivers based on a set of parameters to arrive at a common understanding of red (critical or destroyed), pink (threatened) and blue (wild/pristine) rivers in the country.

“Assessing and rating rivers across India is an audacious exercise, but as a civil society, we embarked upon this journey because there is no comprehensive monitoring of rivers in the country,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), and a member of the organising committee of India Rivers Week, which was held in November 2016 at New Delhi.

“Apart from discussions around threats faced by riverine biodiversity, river conflicts and water management, a draft report on the state of India’s rivers was also released during the India Rivers Week. It will soon be submitted to the Union
ministry of water resources to collectively arrive at a roadmap for the conservation of identified rivers in the country,” said Manoj Mishra, a member of the organising committee.

The Indian subcontinent is home to seven major river systems and more than 400 rivers. Anthropogenic pressures of urbanisation and sewage disposal, indiscriminate damming of rivers, discharge of untreated effluents, encroachment,
deforestation and unchecked groundwater extraction, coupled with various climatic factors, have adversely affected river systems across the country.

In spite of a number of laws to check pollution and protect the rivers, water bodies are drying up quickly. “The way we are managing our river systems is suicidal.

Several small rivers have completely dried up, whereas perennial rivers have become seasonal,” said Kalyan Rudra, chairperson of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board.

State of India’s rivers
It was two years ago that five non-profits — WWF-India, SANDRP, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Toxics Link, and Peace Institute — came together to launch a one-of-its-kind biennial event called the India Rivers Week. The idea behind this event was to generate awareness around river restoration, and to share ideas, experiences and practices of river management in the country. The second edition of this initiative was held last November under the theme ‘State of India’s Rivers’. The goal of this second India Rivers Week was to study and assess the health of rivers in all the four zones of the country. “Several experts were identified across India to assess the health of rivers in their respective states or regions. A set of parameters were provided to them against which they had to rate the rivers and categorise them as blue, pink or red,” said Himanshu.

Some of the states whose rivers were assessed as part of this collaborative exercise are Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar and Odisha.

Rating was done based on the river basin approach under which the selected unit of assessment was 250 km length of the main-stem of river. Key tributaries were also identified and assessed provided they were not more than 150 km long and less than 10 km in length. Longer tributaries were considered as independent units for assessment. A total of 15 parameters were used to assess the health of the rivers.

These parameters were further divided into two categories — contributors and indicators. Contributors include parameters that positively or negatively impact the health of a river, whereas indicators indicate the existing health of a river.

A peek into the report
All the contributors and indicators for each of the selected rivers were assessed and given a rating. Areas where concrete information was missing were marked as ‘grey’.

Based on the overall scenario, a river was assigned red, pink or blue category. “We are further refining these parameters and assessment tools to arrive at a people’s River Health Index (RHI), which will be a user-friendly tool that can be used by local communities and organisations to assess the state of river’s health in their area,” explained Manoj.

The assessment of Kerala’s river system, carried out by Dr A Latha, director
of Thrissur-based River Research Centre, found seven rivers in the red category.

“Rivers are under pressure from anthropogenic activities. Water scarcity in many parts of Kerala can be attributed to high rainwater runoff and loss of forest cover in the upper catchments, and more directly to sand mining and reclamation of wetlands and paddy fields. Dams in Kerala have submerged vast stretches of indigenous domains and forests,” reads the Kerala state report. However, if sand mining is taken into consideration, then all the rivers in the state would be categorised as red.

In Tamil Nadu, not even a single river is under the blue category. “Tamil Nadu has 10 major river basins of which seven are in the red category,” said Dr S Janakarajan, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who prepared the status report on Tamil Nadu’s rivers. However, this does not mean that the remaining rivers in the state are safe. “There is a lack of credible data on other rivers in the state.

But, based on the ground situation, I can confidently say that there is not even a single non-polluted river in the state,” he added.

The assessment of rivers in Goa has found River Mandovi, state’s lifeline, to be in the red category. “Extensive mining in the state has been silting the rivers though mining rejects, transport of the mineral by barges through rivers causes severe pollution. Ammonium nitrate, used as an explosive for mining, adds nitrates to the river water causing eutrophication,” reads Goa report prepared by Rajendra Kerkar, convenor of Goa River Conservation Network. The situation is no better in other states. For instance, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana do not have any blue river.

Eight main rivers of Madhya Pradesh are also highly polluted.

The draft report on the state of India’s rivers clearly lists the rivers that are extremely polluted requiring urgent attention. It also explains that rivers are much more than just water bodies. They have riverine biodiversity and sustain various forms of lives. It is the continuous flow of the rivers that settles sediments leading to the formation of rich deltas. Rivers also have a direct link with the groundwater.

Over-exploitation of groundwater leads to reduction in the baseflow because of which rivers dry up.

The India Rivers Week has set the agenda for management and protection of rivers in 2017 and beyond. We cannot afford not to implement it.

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