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What Can We Do to Clean India's Polluted Rivers?

Allahabad: A woman takes a dip in the muddy water of River Ganga, in Allahabad, Wednesday, Sept 26, 2018. (Image: PTI)

Allahabad: A woman takes a dip in the muddy water of River Ganga, in Allahabad, Wednesday, Sept 26, 2018. (Image: PTI)

A CPCB report in 2018 showed that the number of polluted stretches in India’s rivers has increased to 351 from 302 two years ago.

By Vikas Dimble and Priyank Hirani

Indian rivers are in a state of toxicity. Take the example of the most sacred and revered, Ganga, most of whose water is unfit for drinking and bathing.

Out of the 86 monitoring stations on Ganga, only seven sites have been found to be fit for drinking after disinfection process, while only 18 spots have been found to be fit for bathing. That’s the data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

State of Indian rivers: bad and worsening

Going beyond Ganga, a CPCB report in 2018 showed that the number of polluted stretches in India’s rivers has increased to 351 from 302 two years ago, and the number of critically polluted stretches—where water quality indicators are the poorest—has gone up to 45 from 34.

And that’s not all. Some more statistics have emerged over the past two years as our researchers from the University of Chicago collected over three lakh data points on water quality using real- time sensors across 11 locations on various rivers in India. Similar to CPCB, we find that for multiple indicators, values are almost always towards the upper limit and for significant times it is beyond the CPCB’s drinking, bathing or fishing standards.

For example, around 67% of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) values from our samples across India fall outside CPCB’s bathing standards and about 80% samples fall outside drinking water standards. Similarly, around 41% of Total Hardness (TH) values across the rivers do not meet CPCB’s drinking water norms.

So, the message is loud and clear—it’s not just perceptions, even the data shows that the state of India’s rivers is bad and it is only getting worse.

Way forward: cohesive national efforts on multiple fronts

So the big question is, how do we change the scenario? There are no magic recipes. However, from the multi stakeholder consultations over the last several months that our researchers did across the country, five approaches have emerged that can augment the steps that have already been taken to clean up our rivers.

Let’s take the bull by the horns. Only when we clearly know the pollution hotspots, can adequate actions be taken to fix them. Hence, better data collection using real-time sensors to identify sources of pollution could be the starting point. The current approach of testing limited number of samples from only a few locations each month is inadequate. It is essential to develop capacity to collect data at much higher temporal and spatial resolutions with specific markers to pinpoint the pollution sources, and this is possible with real-time sensors being taken along the river on a regular basis.

Development economics literature agrees that large-scale government programmes tend to be more successful when citizen participation is at the core. Currently, availability of data on water pollution is scarce and fragmented. So, the second step can be creating a single platform for water quality data disclosure. Water quality-related data in easy-to-understand formats can enable citizens to raise the issue of water pollution with local authorities as well as take cognisance of the impact of their own actions.

Then comes the question: is it fair to expect a single agency to measure water quality comprehensively across the country? In India, it is CPCB that undertakes this humungous task, but across the globe, including some African countries, most water quality monitoring agencies are democratising the process of data collection. They are crowdsourcing data by involving communities and other stakeholders. This bottom-up approach reduces the cost, improves comprehensiveness and builds trust on the collected data. A publicly available formal training to certify water quality monitoring professionals can support this effort towards incorporating crowdsourced data.

The next big worry is, do citizens know enough about what polluted air is doing to their health? Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Governor of California, was recently quoted about his success in making environment a public policy issue in California. “Environmentalists couldn’t really reach the mass until he emphasized the health effects of pollution,” he said. Schwarzenegger makes a valid point. We cannot sensitise masses on water pollution until there is increased emphasis on how it impacts their health. There are no major studies that measure economic and health cost of surface water pollution in India. So the fourth major step that needs to be taken is to put significant efforts to study it.

And then, the fifth step could be to look at the water quality data holistically. Analysing water pollution data in isolation has limited applications. River Basin Management needs to be looked at holistically. Water quality data should be juxtaposed with meteorological information, data on industrial, agricultural and domestic sources of pollution and the gaps between wastewater generated and treated. Such data is being collected by various government agencies, but lack of interoperability is a challenge. Standard protocols to ensure a cohesive analysis of such data should be developed.

These steps would take us closer to creating an effective action framework for cleaning large water bodies. The encouraging bit of this story, however, is that cleaning India’s rivers has gotten renewed political attention over the last few years. And now is time that the political will marries strategic steps to design and implement a cohesive national strategy for cleaning the rivers. After all, rivers are all we have to quench our thirst!

(Vikas Dimble is the Assistant Director of Research and Strategy, Tata Centre for Development at UChicago and Priyank Hirani is Team Lead and Program Manager, Water-to-Cloud, UChicago.)