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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Yamuna winding river of sorrow drowns in sewage

A young girl paddles on the Yamuna, which, according to an expert, is badly polluted by Delhi residents with "a flush and forget mindset".
BEGINNING at dawn under the belly of an old wrought iron bridge, Somnath Dantoso, 12, drops a dumbbell-shaped magnet from his boat built from rubbish into Delhi's Yamuna River.It is a routine he has done daily for four years. The magnet sinks about 10 metres below the river's inky surface and on a good day clings to about 50 rupees worth of coins that commuters toss in for good luck."When people stop throwing coins I'm going to open a grocery shop," Somnath says. "Otherwise I'll do this the rest of my life."The Indian Government has spent 20 billion rupees trying to clean the polluted Yamuna, yet the stretch where young Somnath works is so contaminated it can hardly sustain marine life.Garbage cascades down its banks and gives off the stench of a cesspool, blighting a river that extends 1376 kilometres from the Himalayas to the holy Ganges. From 1993 to 2005, pollution levels more than doubled, and they continue to rise."The river is dead — it just has not been officially cremated," says Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, one of India's top environmental watchdog groups.What went wrong with the Yamuna is increasingly characteristic of India's major cities: unchecked urban growth combined with poor government oversight.

The problem is not only in Delhi, which dumps 57 per cent of its waste into the Yamuna."It's a national challenge," says S. V. Suresh Babu, from the CSE, who points out that 80 per cent of India's urban waste goes into rivers. The top 10 most expensive river clean-up sites in India are so polluted they exceed the level for safe bathing.The costs aren't only in the clean-up. According to Dr Shreekant Gupta, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics specialising in the environment, the cost of environmental damage in India is equivalent to 4 per cent of national income, when factoring in lost productivity from death and disease (water-borne diseases are India's leading cause of child mortality).The problem in Delhi pivots on the frightening fact that only 55 per cent of the city's 15 million residents are connected to the city's sewerage system. The rest flush their bath water, waste water and just about everything else down pipes and into drains that empty into the Yamuna. "We have a flush and forget mindset," Ms Narain says.Today Delhi is home to 5 per cent of India's urban population but has 40 per cent of the country's sewage treatment capacity. Despite the massive capital outlay, 11 of the 17 sewage treatment plants are under-used. A quarter of the plants run at less than 30 per cent capacity.According to Arun Mathur, chief executive of the Delhi Jal Board, the government agency responsible for providing drinking water and disposing of waste water, the problem has been the decrepit state of the city's sewerage system, which fails to deliver the sewage to the plants. Mr Mathur explains that the treatment plants cannot work to capacity "because the sewer lines are silted and settled … and are corroded".
Delhi has 6000 kilometres of sewerage lines, but it is the system's main lines that have fallen into disrepair over the years, backing up the peripheral lines. The challenge for Mr Mathur is the unplanned neighbourhoods — the sprawling growth of Delhi that is unconnected to the system. The sewage from "1500 unplanned colonies find its way into the drains and the river", he says and shakes his head. According to the CSE, 75 to 80 per cent of the river's pollution is a result of raw sewage. Combined with industrial run-off, it totals more than 3 billion litres of waste a day, a quantity well beyond the river's assimilative capacity.The frothy mix is so glaring it can be viewed on Google Earth.The matter is now in the hands of the Indian Supreme Court — notorious for legislating from the bench when government bureaucracies fail to act quickly, or at all.
On May 8, the court approved a new proposal from the Delhi Jal Board to build interceptor sewers diverting the sewage flowing from unconnected parts of the city to the sewage treatment plants. The plan is estimated to cost another 20 billion rupees.But experts such as Ms Narain believe throwing more money into building sewage diversion and treatment infrastructure is a waste of time. India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, seems to agree, coming down on the side of innovation over new construction. In a speech delivered on World Water Day, March 22, he called on India's scientists, technologists and engineers to redesign the flush toilet.


nituscorner November 16, 2008 at 7:34 PM  

This is a problem not only in the capital city.....its a problem in every part of the country.....inspite of all the efforts taken by the government or some concious group of people , the majority of us still ignore this issue .....very selfishly i should say because we just don't care for our Tomorrow....so when man loses a battle than may be Nature takes up the job to bring us back to our senses and she sends floods !!!! and few years back we did have floods in shillong ...something not heard of...and apart from the river changing its course , the other reason is because of the sewage dumped into it. Disgusting!!!!

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