We must preserve water systems in India

Thursday, 3 July 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

Several ministers of the Central government are actively propagating the cause of cleaning up polluted rivers, particularly Ganga and Yamuna, in the past one month. The thrust is understandable because the sorry state of affairs of the Ganga was a major poll issue in Varanasi, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A new department for Ganga rejuvenation has been added to the ministry of water resources. It is significant that this department has been brought under the control of the water resources ministry, which is more concerned with the engineering aspects of river development such as construction of dams and not under the ministry of environment which should have been the logical choice for the task at hand. All the past and ongoing river cleaning-up projects are being coordinated by the environment ministry.

The choice of water resources ministry and follow-up moves such as projecting Sabarmati as the model for cleaning up Ganga and Yamuna make it abundantly clear that the Modi government is inclined towards an engineering approach — and not an ecological approach — to clean up, revive or rejuvenate Indian rivers. Market research reports are floating around suggesting that dozens of ghats in Varanasi could be offered to corporates for development under their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Official delegations from Delhi are being dispatched to Ahmedabad to 'study' the Sabarmati model.

Let's see what the Sabarmati model is all about. It was a project executed by a dedicated riverfront development corporation over the past 15 years. It was designed as an urban development or beautification — not river clean up — initiative. First, the slums along Sabarmati in Ahmedabad city were 'cleared' and then embankments were built along with riverfront parks with necessary street furniture. It is an ideal picnic spot for middle-class Amdavadis to spend an evening, have a plate of bhel puri sitting on benches facing the river and enjoy a boat ride. As for water flowing in the river, hundreds of crores have been spent to divert Narmada water from Sardar Sarovar dam which is meant for irrigation and drinking. The riverfront corporation has done nothing to rid the river of its heavy pollution load, or had anything to do with the river beyond the riverfront in Ahmedabad. The rest of Sabarmati remains as dead as a sewer because it continues to get toxic industrial effluents and millions of litres of untreated sewage as it flows to the Gulf of Khambhat in the Arabian Sea, as shown by a comprehensive scientific study of biological parameters of the river published by the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute, Bhavnagar, earlier this year.

Well-developed riverfronts are pleasing to the eye but may be disastrous for the health of river systems. It is being argued that when European cities like London, Copenhagen, Brussels or Paris can boast of beautiful and alive riverfronts, why can't Indian cities do the same? Riverfront development in Europe and America took place in the 1960s and 1970s when traditional water-dependent industries moved away from river banks to far off locations for various economic reasons. This freed up vast open spaces along the banks. Secondly, river water quality improved vastly with implementation of stricter environmental laws. This is not the case with Indian cities and rivers.

In addition, the nature of rivers in Europe and America is different from our rivers. The flow in Indian rivers is not the same throughout the year as it mostly depends on summer glacial melts or monsoon flows, besides diversion of water for various purposes. This means river beds look dry for most part of the year exposing the riverbed and floodplains, which gives false impression that surplus land is available for real estate or other development. The same bed and floodplains, however, would be filled in the event of excess rains in catchment areas. Therefore, building embankments and other structures as part of riverfront development projects is going to constrict the natural path of the river and also encroach upon the floodplains. Rivers also have certain capacity to assimilate pollutants. By confining them within embankments, this capacity is reduced a great deal.

Preserving floodplains is crucial, not just for the overall river health, but also for urban ecology as these plains act as aquifers for groundwater recharge. Any construction on floodplains would increase flood-hazard risks for cities where such development takes place and also for areas downstream. Yamuna flows for 22 km in the city of Delhi and nearly two dozen nallahs are emptied in it. If the river is confined within concrete banks then there is a danger of these nallahs flooding areas around them. Real estate lobbies have been eyeing the Yamuna floodplains for long. Huge part of this ecological system has already been consumed by large projects like the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) depots, Akshardham Temple and the Commonwealth Games Village. DMRC head E Sreedharan had even proposed a large riverfront development project for Yamuna in Delhi a few years ago.

Even in the West, it is being recognised that protection and revitalisation of river health should be an equally important objective along with riverfront development. This can be done only when our politicians and planners take a holistic view of our rivers. First and foremost, we need to address twin problems of industrial pollution and municipal sewage systems. Effluent treatment systems for industries are non-functional because compliance of pollution control laws is lax. Municipal bodies are dumping untreated waste into rivers because of insufficient and inefficient treatment of domestic waste water. This is the case of all cities along Ganga and Yamuna in North India, and also smaller rivers like Sabarmati in Gujarat. Then comes the larger issue of maintaining ecological flows in our rivers. This is affected by several factors like hydropower development, diversion of water for irrigation, destruction of natural drainage systems in catchment areas and so on. Focusing on cosmetic measures like riverfront development can mask serious ecological and environmental problems facing Indian rivers and municipal governance. If at all we are looking for models for reviving our rivers, it should be Arvari river in Rajasthan which has been revived by community work led by Tarun Bharat Sangh taking an ecological and not engineering approach.

The writer is Delhi-based journalist and author

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