April 21, 2021
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The Tragic Song Of Our Rivers Of Hope

The alarming degradation of our rivers is a reflection of our times. But if they die, so do we.

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The Tragic Song Of Our Rivers Of Hope
The Sarayu river at Ayodhya.
Photo by Suresh K Pandey
The Tragic Song Of Our Rivers Of Hope

It is universally acknowledged that rivers are the crucibles of civilization. From time immemorial, settlements have sprung up alongside rivers owing to the easy availability of water and associated means of sustenance. Over time these settlements metamorphosized into the towns and cities we see today.

With the passage of time, especially after the advent of the industrial era, the association of the riverside communities with the rivers has undergone a perceptible transformation. Urbanization has resulted in a change in the nature of dependence on the rivers. It has become indirect. This has diminished the value of rivers among the denizens of the cities.

How so? Consider this: Now river water is stored in reservoirs, hundreds of miles upstream of the cities, behind massive dams. The water head is utilized for generation of electricity and then water is channelized for consumption by the cities downstream in addition to meeting the water needs of the farms in the hinterland all the year-round. This has freed up the riverbed and floodplains, especially in cities, for encroachments, real estate development, sand mining, etc. The stretch of the rivers adjunct to the cities have become convenient receptacles for the wastewater generated by the cities in the form of sewage and industrial effluents.

The modern sewer system merits a paragraph of its own. Sources reveal that 35 metropolitan cities in India (population greater than 10 lakhs) generate about 16,000 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage. Further, the capacity exists to treat only 50 per cent of the generated sewage, with the rest being, admittedly, discharged untreated into the rivers. Among the metropolitan cities, Delhi has the maximum treatment capacity followed by Mumbai. While the metropolitan cities have some record of wastewater treatment, the remaining cities fare poorly on this account. Further, this sewage is deprived of the self-purification properties of the river as a result of reduced flow in them (dammed upstream, remember?). Therefore, alarmingly, for all practical purposes, most rivers flowing alongside cities are dead.

The bottom line is that aggressive repurposing of rivers to offset the pressures of urbanization has resulted in their severe degradation. The effects of this degradation have only begun to manifest themselves on humankind in recent decades. The water crisis has become acute owing to the drying up of rivers and depleting levels of groundwater. The wastewater, which has replaced the rivers in cities is contaminating the soil and the aquifers posing serious health hazards for us. Encroachment on rivers and her floodplains and increase in impervious surfaces in cities have, paradoxically, resulted in an increased incidence of urban floods. Hydrological droughts, which refers to a lack of water in the hydrological system, manifesting itself in abnormally low streamflow in rivers, have exacerbated interstate conflicts. Therefore, an understanding of the distinguishing characteristics responsible for the degradation of rivers and how this degradation is affecting humankind is important.

Great Expectations

A quiet stretch of the Kaveri River, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Shutterstock 

Every city has an origin story. Few are as romantic as that of Hyderabad. It involves a young Sultan, a beautiful courtesan, and of course a river. The story goes that the 14- year old Sultan of Golconda-Quli Qutb Shah, fell madly in love with Bhagmati, a local dancer, who lived in a village called Chichlam, across the Musi river. The Sultan courted Bhagmati by fording the river for their romantic trysts. After his coronation, the Sultan found the atmosphere in the rugged and impregnable Golconda fort stifling. He established a new city - Bhagyanagar on the banks of the Musi. It later came to be known as Hyderabad- the seat of the Nizams. One distinctive feature of this new city was a jasmine garden set on an island with the river flowing on both its sides. The once beautiful jasmine garden is now the site of a bus terminal built on the very river bed with dark sludge, for the Musi is now full of untreated waste disposed continuously from the city, flowing on either side. Ironically, the bus terminal is named after Mahatma Gandhi- the man who advocated self-sufficient, sustainable villages as opposed to modern cities in his vision for independent India.

The real tragedy, today, is the utter disregard for the notion of commons, which includes our rivers. Quite simply put, we pretend selective amnesia to the rich heritage a river represents and allow it to perish. A river’s function is not merely restricted to providing services— irrigation, power generation, domestic, and industrial use. It fulfils multiple social, cultural, ecological and hydrological functions. From the Ganga to the Godavari, all rivers in India have important religious and cultural significance. Degraded rivers would mean a loss of this rich heritage.

What’s in a Name?

A Fisherman sifts through the trash floating on the Yamuna River. Photo by Suresh K Pandey

While most of us are familiar with the Panchatantra story of the Brahmin’s Gift, I challenge you to spot the river in it.

Once upon a time, there lived a pious Brahmin. One day he was returning home with a goat slung over his shoulder - a gift from a wealthy merchant for his services in performing some rituals. Three thugs hatched a plot to rid him of his goat. Acting in tandem each approached him separately and expressed surprise that he was carrying a dog/a dead calf/a donkey on his back. Frightened that he had received a devil incarnate as a gift, the Brahmin abandoned the goat and ran away.

And the river? The goat is the river. At one time called a Goddess and at another time a mother, now we sully her or parts of her with degrading terms such as nala, drain or poromboke, at the same time turning up our noses at the stench.

‘Nala’, a Hindi word, which once meant a channel for carrying stormwater as well as rivulet or stream has degenerated to signify only a dirty channel of water and ‘drain’, which once signified a channel to drain something especially rainwater, has come to mean a channel carrying wastewater. ‘Poromboke’, a Tamil term, meaning places reserved for shared communal uses (like water bodies, grazing lands, etc.) now means a pejorative to demean or devalue a place or person. While it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment these terms underwent degeneration, one thing is sure that their value was lost on the community with hassle-free availability of finite resources through utilities, predicating a disconnect with our commons including rivers. As a result, rivers flowing through urban areas now predominantly carry domestic sewage and industrial effluents. The capital’s lifeline river, Yamuna, has undergone a similar degeneration.

Dams as Instruments of Human Greed

The mighty Srisailam Dam, Telangana. Photo: Shutterstock

Dams are good. They have enabled large-scale growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing is bad. With the growth in population and economy, reliance on dams for water storage and electricity has increased exponentially. This manifested itself in extensive damming of rivers with its roots in the notion that any untapped water allowed to flow into the ocean is a waste.

Rivers, due to which dams exist, are left with little water to sustain. Across the globe, smaller rivers and streams run dry for the most part of the year owing to extensive damming. Downstream of dams there is a tremendous impact on flow, temperature and sediment regime of rivers amplified manifold in case of multiple dams obstructing and diverting their flow path. The reduced flow in rivers is threatening the riparian ecosystems and life in the river itself. It also hampers the river’s self-purification potential, a capability which is most required in cities where the pollution contributions are at their highest. As a consequence, long stretches of our rivers are highly degraded particularly in urban areas, partly because a large fraction of the natural flows is diverted while the quality of water flowing into rivers is very poor.

A typical case in point is the Krishna river basin in South India. It has witnessed intense water development since India gained independence, resulting in over-commitment of water and river basin closure. A generally accepted definition of a closed river basin is one where all available water is committed, resulting in little or no discharge to the ocean during years with average precipitation. The Krishna river flowing through four states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh) provides drinking water and irrigation to more than 75 million people. However, its flow is a mere trickle in the lower reaches. Every last drop in the basin has been planned for leaving practically no water in the river to sustain life and feed its dependent ecosystems. Degradation of downstream ecosystems is characterized by salinized soil and groundwater, increased pollution, disappearing mangroves and desiccated wetlands all of which are adversely affecting the life and livelihoods of people in the lower reaches of the basin. The over-exploitation in the basin has led to an increase in hydrological droughts exacerbating interstate conflicts.  

Ageing dams are turning out to be double-edged swords. The water holding capacity in their catchment areas is depleting progressively owing to siltation. Paradoxically, the deltas of rivers are being deprived of this very same silt. A decrease in sediment deposit has resulted in shrinkage of deltas (Deltas help maintain elevation levels from the seas). This in turn is leading to the ingress of seawater affecting agriculture and groundwater in the coastal regions. Dams located on Kaveri River and its tributaries are reducing sediment flow to its delta, which has shrunk the delta by 20 per cent. Sediment flow to the Kaveri delta has been practically nil of late as per a 2015 report by Central Water Commission.

Lame Duck Legislation

 Devotees throng the Ganga river in Patna to take a bath on the occasion of Kartik Purnima. Photo: PTI                

For sure, legislations to protect the rights of rivers do exist. However, the devil is in their implementation. A case in point is The River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 2016 which is a document with an ambitious scope. It ordains applicability to the states comprising the river Ganga Basin. It brings the Ganga and all her tributaries and their respective flood plains under its ambit. It explicitly prohibits construction of any sort in such flood plains. However, this order is being observed in its breaches. By the time strict enforcement of such orders happens, perhaps, it will be too late for what’s left of the river and her floodplains.

Another ineffectual piece of legislation was the government’s ‘Sustainable Sand Management Guidelines 2016’. It was unsuccessful in putting an end to rampant illegal sand mining across the country. Four years on, the environment ministry has now come out with ‘Enforcement & Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining 2020’ to supplant the earlier legislation. On the ground, however, the mechanisms for successful implementation are either lacking or scuttled.

To wrap our heads around the problem of sand mining in river beds, a few points are worthy of mention. The primary demand for sand emanates from the construction industry and land reclamation. Sand could be sourced from deserts, river beds or the oceans. The desert sand has been observed to be too rounded precluding its use as an effective binding agent. Marine sand on the other hand is highly corrosive. Thus, both are ruled out for use in the construction industry. Therefore, sand from the river beds is the sand of choice. A UN report estimates that the annual global demand for sand is at staggering 400 billion tons a year. Another United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report talks about the rate of sand extraction and observes that it is far in excess of the natural replenishment rate which poses a grave sustainability challenge. Unsustainable sand mining could result in riverbank collapse, deepening of river beds, sinking deltas and coastal erosion as well as biodiversity loss, especially when coupled with the impacts of dams and climate change. Rampant sand mining directly harms people too. Stripping rivers of their sands cause water tables to drop, an ominous concern in India where millions face historic water shortages. Massive sand mining has also eroded river deltas exposing coastal communities to severe land loss and worsening effects of climate change-induced sea-level rise.

In 2018, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) came out with the notification on mandatory environmental flows (e-flow) in the Ganga. The notification has limited itself to a small part of the Ganga basin. A review of the Central Water Commission (CWC) monitoring report of 2019 reveals that levels, as specified by the notification, are not being complied with.

E-flow is a term that defines the quantity, timing, and quality of water that should flow through a river to maintain the ecosystems dependent on it. E-flows of rivers vary from stretch to stretch within a river as well as from river to river. Maintaining e-flow ensures ecological integrity and fulfilment of human needs downstream. In India, e-flows are just a formality to fulfill the requirements of the environmental clearance process. Project developers are clearly unhappy with even the meagre allocation in the name of the e-flow. They do not understand that a river and her tributaries have their own ecological niches and functions to perform with the social and cultural practices of human settlements being dependent on their flows.

The Sheikh Chilli Syndrome


      Morning rituals at the Hooghly River, Calcutta.  Photo by Sandipan Chatterjee

Calcutta was the seat of power in India in the 18th century. The emergence of the city as a major hub of commercial activity led to the generation of a copious amount of undesirable by-products-waste water. The fishermen and farmers of Kolkata in the early 20th century converted this adversity into an opportunity and created what we have come to recognize as the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW).

The urban inhabitants of Kolkata were not even aware of this wonderful miracle wrought by the sons of the soil. It was left to Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, a functionary in the State’s Water and Sanitation Department to discover and christen this natural treatment system for solid and soluble waste and lobby for its recognition as a Ramsar site (Wetlands of International Importance).

EKW claims the unique distinction of being the largest ‘wastewater-fed aquaculture system’ in the world where the sewage is recycled for pisciculture and agriculture. Spread over 125 km2, the wetlands form an important portion of the mature delta of the river Ganga. It treats more than 80 per cent of the sewage generated by Kolkata, supports around 50,000 agro-workers and supplies about one-third of the city’s requirement of fish. About 1,000 million litres of wastewater each day is funnelled into the wetlands that filter it and discharge it into the Bay of Bengal, some three or four weeks later.

Sadly, and predictably, this vast tract caught the eye of the real estate developers. In the 1960s, a part of the wetland was reclaimed for building the posh satellite township of Salt Lake City. Two decades later, construction of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass increased the accessibility of the wetland to the city attracting further real estate interest. Recently, a 5-km flyover through the wetlands has been planned by the West Bengal government.

Prosthetic Makeovers

Naya Ghat at Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Photo by Suresh K Pandey

Degradation of rivers is a fairly universal phenomenon not only in India but across the globe. Nature relieves the stress and tedium of urban living. However, it is in short supply for it was the first casualty in the rush towards urbanization. The unholy cabal of commercial interests has now come into capitalizing on this basic need of humankind. There is a rush of riverfront development schemes in India in the name of saving damaged rivers.

The poster child of riverfront development – Ahmedabad Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, bears closer scrutiny in this context. River Sabarmati, the lifeline of Ahmedabad, gained prominence when Mahatma Gandhi set up his ashram on its banks in 1917. With the construction of a dam at Dharoi on the Sabarmati river, a steady deterioration in the downstream health of the river started. In 1997, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) set up the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL) to work on the Sabarmati riverfront. For this purpose, water from the Narmada river canal (meant for drought-prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat) was diverted into the Sabarmati. The Narmada water has thus been used to make a 10.5 km-long artificial channel till the barrage at Vasana with no river flowing upstream or downstream of the channel. The river’s natural flood plains have been reappropriated into paved walkways (called promenades) and real estate.

Inspired by the Sabarmati project, several riverfront development projects are springing up across the nation, which are being pushed without any kind of studies or impact assessment. These include the Mula-Mutha rivers in Pune, Mithi in Mumbai and Gomti in Lucknow. A cursory glance at the existing river restoration/ improvement/beautification schemes indicates that it is more about real estate than a river. Most of the currently ongoing projects lay a heavy emphasis on beautification of riverfronts. Concrete wall embankments, reclamation of the riverine floodplains and commercialization of the reclaimed land are the innate components of these projects. These makeovers are in no way river restoration projects.  They do more harm than good as evidenced by the frequent urban floods in recent years. The need of the hour is river rejuvenation and not river-front development which is a merely prosthetic makeover.

A Shift towards Ecocentrism

A man offers morning prayers at the Yamuna in New Delhi. Photo by Suresh K Pandey

Realization of what’s good for the rivers is ultimately essential for the continued well-being of humankind. This when subscribed by more and more people will result in a tipping point. A tipping point which recognizes the rights of rivers. This realization will fill the sails of the movement which strives to address fundamentals questions like - are rivers mere commodities meant to be exploited by humankind as it pleases? Or do rivers have intrinsic rights which entitle them to protection from unbridled exploitation?

The emerging contours of this realization are becoming apparent in developments, which have taken place mostly in this and the last decade such as rivers in Ecuador and New Zealand having won legal rights. In November 2016, a constitutional court of Colombia bestowed rights of “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration” to the Atrarto river basin. Nearer home, in 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court conferred legal entity hood to the Indian rivers Ganga, the Yamuna as well as their source glaciers, Gangotri and Yamunotri with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities (a move which has since been stayed by the Supreme Court on technicalities). Considered judgements by the courts of the land are like shots in the arm to peoples’ movements who have been advocating the urgent need for action to protect and revive rivers for decades. Judicial activism is forcing the legislative arm to revisit its approach to nature predicating a wiser course of action to restore rivers to better health. The fundamental challenge here is to reconcile the inherent contradiction between the current development paradigm, which is solely exploitative in approach with the recognized rights of nature. We can no longer afford to take the business-as-usual tack wherein environmental laws and constitutional provisions related to it are promptly sacrificed at the altar of growth-centred development at the first hint of a contradiction. As Ashish Kothari et al. in their “Rivers and Human Rights: We are the River, the River is Us?” have argued that we have to go beyond a legal rights-based approach. For the rights of rivers (and more generally of nature) to be safeguarded, we need major transformations in the consciousness, values, and actions of people living along or using them. This kind of eco-centric thought process is not new to humankind. Indigenous people around the world have respected the rest of nature as a part of their world views, as a part of living.

(Ritu Rao is a PhD scholar at Teri School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. Her area of research is urban water bodies. The views are personal and do not necessarily reflect that of Outlook magazine.)

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