Ganga needs water, not money

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Wednesday 02 September 2015

It was way back in 1986 that Rajiv Gandhi had launched the Ganga Action Plan. But years later, after much water (sewage) and money has flowed down the river, it is as bad as it could get. Why are we failing and what needs to be done differently to clean this and many other rivers?

standalone-imagePollution in the Ganga remains a tough challenge. According to recent estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), faecal coliform levels in the mainstream of the river—some 2,500 km from Gangotri to Diamond Harbour—remain above the acceptable level in all stretches, other than its upper reaches. Even in the highly oxygenated upper stretches, faecal coliform levels, though within acceptable levels, are increasing in places like Rudraprayag and Devprayag, suggesting inadequate flow for dilution.

Pollution hot spots, the megaand fast-growing cities along the river, present a grimmer picture. According to CPCB monitoring data, BOD levels are high downstream of Haridwar, Kannauj and Kanpur, and peak at Varanasi. But what is worrying is that in all the stretches pollution is getting worse. This is not surprising given that all along this heavily populated stretch fresh water intake from the river is increasing. Water is drawn for agriculture, industry and cities but only waste is returned to the river.

Over the years, funds allocated for cleaning the Ganga have been used to create infrastructure, without much attention to their use and efficacy. Most cities do not have the infrastructure to convey the sewage to the treatment plant; and most cities certainly do not have the money to run the plant. Worse still, the quantum of sewage that is estimated for treatment is wide of the mark. A recent estimate by CPCB shows the difference between the official estimate of sewage and the measured discharge of wastewater into the Ganga is as much 3,364 million litres per day. This is 123 per cent higher than what was planned for. It is no surprise then that the river is not cleaned despite spending money under the Ganga Action Plan.

A comprehensive solution to the Ganga pollution lies in dealing with three problem areas: one, finding water to dilute and assimilate waste; two, finding innovative ways to check the growing quantum of untreated sewage discharged into the river; and three, fixing the enforcement to stop industries from discharging waste into the river. This will require facing the facts squarely.

First, it would mean accepting that in India, where the cost of treating dirty water is unaffordable, measures to control river pollution must be based on the principle of availability of water for dilution. The available standards for “acceptable water quality” provide for a dilution factor of 10. That is why discharge standards for water bodies are set at 30 BOD, while bathing water quality standard is 3 BOD. If rivers have water for dilution, cities can save money on expensive hardware and energy for treatment. Instead, water inflow would enhance the assimilative capacity of the river for self-cleansing the waste.

But where will this additional water for ecological flow come from? Releasing more water upstream of the pollution hot spots will deprive farmers, cities and industries there and, therefore, will be contested. For instance, Haryana flatly refuses to give more water to Delhi for ecological flow in the Yamuna. So, instead of asking upstream users to release water, it must be mandated that ecological flow comes from the city or the state government’s own allocation of riparian water. The government then has a choice to either build storage to collect monsoon water for dilution within its territory, or release river water and make other arrangements for the requirements of agriculture, drinking and industry. In other words, all users must be forced to plan for water needs based on what the rivers can spare, not what they can snatch.

Secondly, pollution plans must accept that urban areas will not be able to build conventional sewage networks at the scale and pace needed for controlling pollution. Therefore, the conveyance of waste must be re-conceptualised and implemented at the time of planning treatment plants. This will then lead to innovative ideas for controlling pollution in drains—in situ treatment of sewage as well as local treatment and reuse of wastewater.

Thirdly, the plans must accept that underground sewage networks will take many light years to build, so whatever wastewater is treated must not be discharged in open drains carrying untreated waste. It should either be reused or discharged directly into the river.

In this way, the plans would accept the need to design affordable water and sanitation solutions. Current situation requires Central government assistance for capital and operational costs of sewage treatment plants. This is not tenable in the long run. Nor does it encourage states to release more water for pollution control. Central government funding should, therefore, be conditional; it should match the quantum of ecological flow released by the state in the river.

So the Ganga and all other rivers can be cleaned. But not until we learn pollution control with a difference.


Report of the Inter-Ministerial Group on issues relating to river Ganga

Pollution assessment: river Ganga

National Ganga River Basin project: project appraisal document

For a living ganga: working with people and aquatic species

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  • Appears like CSE is veering

    Appears like CSE is veering around to accepting that there has to be a balance between 'Developoment' and pollution of waters that necessitates its cleaning .

    The biggest pollution of all is the Popollution ( read population) . All agencies must be sounded to tackle this menace on war footing ( through propoganda , whatever it takes .

    2ndly Conservation . In our country water starved regions use less water . Water usage practices in these ares will have to be followed by water rich areas ( eg 140 litres per day per person may perhaps be brought down over time to 120 , 100 , 80 etc .

    3rdly , polluter pays concept must be viogorously endorsed by all - industries , individuals, corporates , local bodies and lastly individuals too While industry clusters can set EFT plants ,etc , small industries,corp offices, Local Bodies ( with their abattoirs , etc) and individuals will have to pay a proportionate pollution tax . Amongst individuals , the high income earners as with any other services like Utility pay more and cross subsidise the low/marginal income groups.

    If we start these now , at least 2 generations down the rod ( ( say 50 or 60 years) , hopefully there will be a sembalnce of cleansed Gang and other water bodies .Flagarant violators will have to be chastened by the Green Bench aor ny other Statutory pollution governing body at Centre/ State levels. ( as water usage and denial of riparin rights ) , existing Monitoring bodies will have to have more teeth .

    Lastly , the leaders and Sates' heads will have to led the way and 'Respect and implement' the orders by these Institutions / bodies in stead of procrastinating thru' appeal mechanisms , etc ( for political mileage) and then others too will follow suit ( the fundamental principle here is , any Judaical or quasi judicial body' has no friends or foes and delivers verdict based on merit only ( just as umpires/ referees give their decisions and abide by the players) .

    Gang mai , you only can save yopurslef just as you bless us .


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Madam, It really is an


    It really is an informed article. In Kolkata they have dumped the Plan; and the Sewage Treatment Plants installed some years back are non-ops. At the central level they had had a better idea, not even infrastructure, but MGNREGA,RTE,FSB etc for vote bank politics. So India continues to be polluted on all fronts; nature and ethics both. Strangely, according to the media reports, Sonia Gandhi was too seized of VVIP chopper deal rather than Ganga Action Plan in which neither she nor Rahul can reach out to the poor people for votes. The predominantly illiterate masses are hardly bothered about clean ecology. Meanwhile they are happy defecating in the open fields. Jairam Ramesh though pontificates to them about building toilets than temples.

    Your upshot of despair; you seem to have surrendered in hopelessness to the ignorance of the masses is understandable.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I think, its about time we

    I think, its about time we recognised that a big part of the problem is the flush toilet and the political economy of modern sanitation.

    The Total Sanitation Programme mindlessly pushes the flush toilets dream as if water is not an issue in India. As villages inexorably grow, tumor-like, into peri-urban slums and these into grotesque towns and the million plus towns into horrendous cities like Delhi and Mumbai (for the aam aadmi that is), most of our precious fresh water is destined to be flushed down the loo. The TSP will ensure that most of rural India's water also goes the same way.

    In days when cement and sand and ceramic were not considered as emblems of 'development', there were simple dry pit latrines in much of rural India. A well designed dry pit (and many Ph Ds waiting to be done on this!), uses minimal water but is 'managed' with mud or dry leaves etc. and costs a fraction of what a flush toilet with a septic tank costs. It can easily last for 10 to 15 years for a family of 6 to 8 persons and is a DIY proposition.

    This is what the TSP should be promoting, but perhaps there is no money for the politicians and contractors in dry pits!

    Could we at least not TRY this in one sub-district in the hills?!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Supplement to the Editorial

    Supplement to the Editorial Colum titled ÔÇ£Ganga needs water, not moneyÔÇØ by Sunita Narain
    Actual needs to clean Ganges are highlighted in clear technical terms with pertinent information on the difference between the official estimates of sewage.

    Adverse Impact of inadequate flow has been demonstrated with reference to pollution status in terms of fecal coliform and BOD and thereby quantum of ecological flow released by the state in the river is obviously ÔÇÿbestÔÇÖ solution to pollution. Regulatory agencies are quite reluctant to think in this line but huge financial investment is made to monitor the river without assessing appropriateness and adequacy of existing monitoring network design in a country like India where millions of people are deprived of food and shelter. Monitoring is the only means to provide pertinent information on impairment of water quality for framing water quality management practice.

    I have done Critical analysis of water quality data (I have done this with limited data. Though I requested CPCB to get raw data of five years to assess the quality of data and to interpret theses data for evaluating actual dynamics of pollutants but practically they denied). This analysis clearly revealed that to date design of water quality monitoring network is not consistent and logical to produce reliable data. Such data often leads to flawed interpretation which is consequently misleading and erroneous. In the present scenario the water quality has become a critical component to assess the current and emerging water quality problems, changes in condition and progress towards meeting management objectives to prudent water quality management.

    The title ÔÇ£ Ganga needs water, not moneyÔÇØ by Sunita Narain is beautifully explain that only money just to carry out monitoring without reassessment is really not required. The actual need is thought process and data interpretation not simply monitoring the water quality as it was carried out since last three decades. I have written one manuscript titled ÔÇ£Water Quality Monitoring Network (Re)Design - National experience and scope of ImprovementÔÇØ and submitted to journal for its review.

    In that I have cited few examples, based on analysis of data, to suggest how to improve the monitoring network design and its effectiveness with low cost.

    Now there is emergent need to reduce environment burden through cleaner production and better city sewage management for sustainable development and restoration of environment quality. I can provide pertinent information in Indian context towards sustainable development and better environment quality management. In addition to that we have to reduce conflict between science and policy (one manuscript has been submitted to Journal) for prudent environment quality management practices. Most importantly all the laboratory should have ÔÇÿRealÔÇÖ competence instead of ÔÇÿdesignatedÔÇÖ competence that requires proper assessment of the laboratory by the experts who have proper understanding on the key concept of measurements.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Superb article on Ganga and

    Superb article on Ganga and the need to keep it clean,Madam. I recall the address to the Nation when Rajive Gandhi became Prime Minster: GANGA BAHUTH GANDHA HAI: HUM IS KO SAAF KARENGI. Decades passed by but GANDHA AND GANGA TRAVEL TOGETHER!
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply