Toxic wastes, dams killing our rivers

Nature has blessed India with 12 major rivers, 46 medium rivers, 14 minor rivers, hundreds of small tributaries and distributaries. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, the total length of rivers and canals in India is 1,83,500 km.

The Indian river system boosts agriculture and allied activities, fishery, forestry, industries, pilgrim tourism, adventure sports and transportation, etc. Over the years, the Indian river system has deteriorated due to over-damming, deforestation, encroachment, sand mining, industrial effluents, urban drainage, garbage deposit, lack of authentic data and lack of political will to implement environmental laws, etc.

The Central Pollution Control Board found that raw sewage and industrial waste have made the water of more than half of India's rivers unfit for drinking. The CPCB study reveals that urban centres let flow 32,000 million litres of untreated sewage per day into the river system. Kanpur tanneries release effluents with chromium sulphate, sodium sulphide, toxic acids, fats, salts, dyes and synthetic chemical into the Ganga.

The river carries hundreds of dead bodies of humans and animals, tons of cremation ashes, pesticides and arsenic. The World Health Organisation has warned that the river water has faecal coliform bacteria 3,000 times higher than the permissible limit for bathing. It does affect the health of people living in 222 small towns alongside the Ganga.

Similarly, the river Cauvery, spread over 80,000 sq km mainly across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was once called the lifeline of South India. The river has become dry in many places. Seawater incursion into the Cauvery delta has adversely affected the fertile paddy fields in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts of Tamil Nadu.

In ancient India, the river Mahanadi was deep enough to float the Boitas (massive traditional ships) of the Odia Sadhavas (traders) who sailed away to Indian Ocean nations and distant Greece for business. Today, the river is a pale shadow of its earlier self. Hospital waste and sewage from Cuttack city pollute the river. The Mula and Mutha rivers once inspired a rich cultural tradition in Pune, met its drinking water needs and served as a venue for water sports.

Encroachment and garbage deposit have made the rivers virtual drains. Similarly, the Musi river of Hyderabad has become terminally sick, like the Mithi river of Mumbai. Hundreds of rivers and rivulets across the country have lost their streams.

The death and destruction of rivers stall many economic activities. Ganga provides livelihood to 500 million people and improves the soil fertility around its catchment area covering 8,61,404 sq. km in India. It carries a surface water of 525 billion cubic meters.

The river is rightly called the "mother" for its contribution to agriculture, water transport, pilgrim tourism and the emotional well-being of people. Myths and mysteries associated with Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Prayag on its banks attract millions of pilgrims, domestic and foreign tourists.

Over damming

More than 75% of fisherfolk in India depend on freshwater fisheries. Over decades, construction of dams, barrages and encroachments have caused the disappearance of almost all the delta mangrove forests across the country. Andhra Pradesh has lost nearly 70% of its mangrove forests which once served as the nursery for fish and shrimps. Until 1980, Mahanadi and the Kathajodi on both sides of the delta-shaped ancient Cuttack city and provided livelihood to more than 20,000 fishermen.

As the rivers lost the streams and fish in the 80s, the fishermen lost their livelihood. This has happened to thousands of fishermen across the country. The trout fish, a popular delicacy, grows in the Himalayan streams of Kashmir. A report of Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Agriculture Sciences (SKUAST) shows that the ecological degradation, mostly due to lifting of sand, boulders, pebbles and stones from the river beds illegally, has affected the fish population over the years.

Over-damming of rivers has adversely affected the flood cycle, reduced fish production, depleted groundwater, reduced soil fertility and distorted natural beauty. The electricity and irrigation facility created from a mega dam cannot compensate the loss to multiple economic activities. The Polavaram dam on river Godavari, built at a cost of over Rs 58,000 crore, has submerged 425 villages that had fertile agricultural land, places of mythological importance and forests and displaced nearly two lakh tribals who once lived in self-sustainable forest-ringed villages.

Over-damming is not necessary in a country that abounds in solar, wind and water resources. There are 1,822 large dams in Maharashtra alone which fail to prevent farmers' suicides, growing unemployment and migration. Maharashtra stands first in farmers' suicide in the country.

Barring Mumbai, Satara, Pune, Thane, Aurangabad, Nashik and parts of Solapur, the rest of Maharashtra faces perennial water crises. Over-damming adversely affects the flood cycle, which causes soil nutrient loss. It is high time we learnt sustainable river management.

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