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Just a Sewage Drain: Yamuna Dies as It Reaches Delhi 

Delhi’s waste kills almost all of the aquatic life in the river.

Updated
India
4 min read
Just a Sewage Drain: Yamuna Dies as It Reaches Delhi 

The Yamuna river, often called Delhi’s lifeline, is gasping for life. The 22-km stretch along the national capital has virtually no aquatic life — thanks to over 20 drains that pour untreated sewage and other waste into the river.

It is not that Yamuna river has no aquatic life at all. Upstream from Wazirabad — before the river enters Delhi — it is home to turtles, different species of fish, crocodiles and an abundance of aquatic plants and phytoplankton. But as it enters Delhi, the river starts to die.

The Kalindi Kunj bank of Yamuna after a religious procession left. (Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan/The Quint)

Noted ecologist CR Babu, who is helping the Delhi government in developing a riverfront for the Yamuna, says that the river is in fact “ecologically dead” in the 22 km urban stretch — between the Wazirabad and Okhla barrages.

Downstream from Wazirabad, the river is ecologically dead as it has no aquatic life. Low levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) and a very high degree of pollution are the reasons that killed the river.
Babu to IANS

A retired Delhi University professor, Babu says that sewage from 21 nullahs (drains) flow into the river, polluting it to a level that is enough to kill the components essential for maintaining aquatic life.

The water levels under the Iron Bridge remain low almost throughout the year, and only cross the danger mark in monsoons. (Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan/The Quint)

Agents like phytoplankton are responsible for sustaining the aquatic food web by creating organic compounds from carbon dioxide dissolved in the water.

In the urban stretch of Yamuna there are no phytoplankton or zooplankton left; these play an important role in maintaining the aquatic life of any water body. They have vanished.
CR Babu

Experts say factors like river-basin degradation, ecological pollution, contaminant effect on ecosystem and ecology, solid and liquid waste pollution and encroachment on riverbed have all combined to kill Yamuna’s aquatic life.

The 21 nullahs discharge around 850 MGD (million gallons per day) of sewage into the Yamuna every day. Of these drains, 67 percent pollution is caused by the Najafgarh drain alone. The stench emanating from the river can make one nauseous.

Kids play in their vast, natural swimming pool, which is also dangerously polluted. (Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan/The Quint)

The 33 Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) operational at present treat only 390 MGD of this, although even their total combined capacity of 640 MGD is inadequate to treat all of the sewage emptied into the river.

The river, which normally flows through the city in the form of a big ‘nullah’ with no water life, is flooded during heavy monsoon rains which may temporarily revive some aquatic life.
Hurriedly reaching the spot, the man carefully kept his bag on the boat and folded his hands for prayer. Spotted at the ITO bank. (Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan/The Quint)

Sushmita Sengupta, Deputy Water Programme Manager at the Centre for Science and Environment, quotes government data to substantiate these figures. According to numbers provided in the Lok Sabha, she says, the quantity of DO at Nizamuddin is 1.5 mg/l and at Okhla it is 2.4 mg/l.

The formation of coliform bacteria is very high due to pollution. It is formed from raw sewage, and the Delhi stretch of Yamuna is no different than a sewer drain. This is a major factor discouraging aquatic life in the river
Sengupta told IANS.

Ammonia levels, which should be at a maximum level of 1.2 mg/l, also shoot up to 12 mg/l at some points in the city.

Research biologist Chaitra Baliga, who has worked extensively on turtles in various parts of the country, says that in other places the Yamuna contains rich aquatic life.

Besides different species of fish, crocodiles, turtles and mugger crocodiles, even fresh water Gangetic Dolphins can be found in some stretches of the river near Hamirpur, in Uttar Pradesh.

Fishermen looking for their catch, as the sun rises, and Yamuna froths with industrial effluents. (Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan/The Quint)

“The high degree of pollution in the Yamuna in Delhi is not favourable for aquatic animals. Fresh water during the monsoon may dilute some of the river’s pollutants, but that will not have any sustainable effect on aquatic life,” Baliga told IANS, adding that river-bed construction and human interference are equally responsible for the ecological imbalance in the river.

Delhi Water Minister Kapil Mishra said the government was working seriously to clean the river and bring the Yamuna back to life.

“The construction of 14 STPs is going on and we will complete it by December 2017. It is our primary focus that after the STPs are made functional, untreated water will not be allowed into the river,” Mishra told IANS.

(Published in arrangement with IANS.)

2 December marks National Pollution Control Day in India. Every year, more than a million people die of pollution-related reasons across the country. Air pollution is one of the biggest culprits.

On this National Pollution Control Day, we bring you a series of pieces about the state of pollution in India. This piece was originally published on 24 August.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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