The River Yamuna is one of India’s two holy rivers, flowing through five states before it joins the Ganga at Prayagraj — formerly Allahabad (Bhattacharyya & Prasad 2020). However, the Indian capital of New Delhi can hardly worship its stretch of the river – rather, it is frequently called a ‘dirty drain’ (Singh 2011). Dumping waste into the river is an entrenched public attitude in Delhi – meanwhile, government efforts to change such attitudes and improve water management infrastructure have been minimal at best, and careless at worst. This neglect has severely degraded Delhi’s only local source of water, forcing it to rely on external water sources and thus gravely endangering its water security (Economic Survey of Delhi, 2018-19).
Unregulated industrial and domestic pollution in Delhi alone contribute a whopping 79% of the Yamuna’s entire pollution load (Upadhyay et al. 2011). Firdaus & Ahmad (2012) calculate that 85% of this pollution comes from domestic sources. Unprecedented population growth has led to the growth of unauthorised housing colonies without sewage connections that dump waste directly into the river. Secondly, open defecation in these unauthorised colonies contributes organic and pathogenic contaminants to the river. Industries and unauthorised dairy farms with inefficient water treatment systems also discharge untreated effluents, cattle dung and liquid waste into the river (Firdaus & Ahmad 2012).
All this has severely degraded water quality in the river, dissolved oxygen content is approaching 0 mg/L, and biological oxygen demand was highest in Delhi at 18 mg/L in 2005 (Upadhyay et al. 2011). In response to public worries, the Government of India launched the first phase of the Yamuna Action Plan in 1993, with its second phase beginning in 2004 (Sharma and Kansal [pdf]). The plans aimed to increase the capacity of sewage treatment plants (STPs) and sewer connections, construct public toilets, develop the riverfront and increase public awareness and participation about the problems facing the Yamuna (Sharma and Kansal [pdf]). However, both plans, despite a hefty investment of Rs. 2700 crore [€ 31 million], failed completely in Delhi (The Pioneer 2016).
According to Singh (2011), one reason for failure was a lack of funding from state governments – a glaring example of the corruption that frequently plagues the water sector. Additionally, sewage treatment plants (STPs) were underutilised because they were built in areas that did not produce much sewage. Meanwhile, areas that produced more sewage were underserviced and forced to deposit waste directly into the river (Upadhyay et al. 2011). STPs were also poorly designed and maintained, suffering from frequent electrical breakdowns and understaffing (Parween et al. 2017). Moreover, Delhi’s sewage demand was heavily underestimated, such that STPs could treat only 40% of the city’s generated sewage (Upadhyay et al. 2011). Lastly, STPs did not address non-point sources of pollution, and did not disinfect water to remove bacteria like coliform, leaving ‘treated’ water highly polluted (Sharma and Kansal [pdf]).
Similarly, the public toilets were absent in areas of high population density, and underutilized where constructed (Singh 2011). Accessibility was also largely overlooked – floor-level pits were difficult for elderly and disabled people to use, while the Rs. 2 [EUR 0.02] fee per visit was too expensive for many poor users (The Pioneer 2016). Thus, the wastes previously produced continued polluting the river, as the infrastructure was inefficiently designed or inaccurately allocated.
Sharma and Kansal [pdf] show that the effects of these oversights by the government worsened pollution in the Yamuna – dissolved oxygen values remained below 5 mg/L and bacterial contamination was too high to comply with environmental standards. Additionally, the plan intended to make the Yamuna water safe for bathing (Class B) by the Central Pollution Control Board standards, but water quality remains at Class D.
Continued pollution and inefficient governance have thus rendered Delhi’s Yamuna completely unusable, despite it being one of the city’s key water sources. Delhi now gets around 50% of its drinking water from neighbouring states – an uneasy and unsustainable solution to its water woes (Economic Survey of Delhi, 2018-19).
Bottom Line: The case of Delhi’s Yamuna shows how corruption and government oversight in water management can perpetuate public attitudes that support pollution, degrading crucial water sources and endangering water security.
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