Pollution in Delhi’s Yamuna

Shreya writes*

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.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Pollution in Delhi’s Yamuna”

  1. Hi Shreya,

    As the other person doing a case study in India, your post was a really fascinating (yet slightly familiar) read. I really wanted to see if some of the core issues that Chennai faced, were in some way or another present, or hopefully, managed better in Delhi. Sadly, even though Delhi is in the north of the country and Chennai the south, corruption remains a main theme in the major obstacles that the urban metropolises of India face when trying to solve water management problems such as pollution.

    I also find it interesting how governments seem to look towards “band-aid” solutions for problems that are clearly a gushing wound. In your Delhi’s case, instead of working to integrate these new underprivileged housing seeks and trying to perform a mass social reform, seeks to instead try to “clean” the pollution. This is worrying because it either signals that the government does not want to fix the actual problem, or does not have the facilities to do so, both of which are frightening.

    One thing that I wanted to ask you, was with regard to the supply of water that Delhi now uses (from other States). Do you happen to know if there have been any tensions over this diversion of water towards the needs of Delhi, and if there have been, how are these clashes being dealt with?

    Again, this was a really insightful piece into the pollution problem that Delhi faces!

    1. That’s quite true. They’re really focusing on providing and increasing the supply of water, which also doesn’t work great considering the amount of corruption and the severe lack of resources that the municipal water utility has.

      As for regional tensions, yes, in light of water scarcity last summer, Delhi and the neighbouring state of Haryana have indeed faced some tensions. I mentioned this in one of the weekly questions – Haryana claims Delhi is asking for more water than it is allocated during times of scarcity and is fudging claims of pollution to acquire more water. Meanwhile, Delhi claims that the water it is being sent is polluted and its STPs do not have the capacity to clean it (…I wonder why?). This has been the most recent tension, but I don’t think anything has been resolved between them as yet.

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