Wildlife & Biodiversity

Reviving ourselves is the only way to revive our rivers

New disturbance to river ecology is the proliferation of riverside development projects that aim to beautify a dying river as it passes through important cities 

By Kunal Sharma
Published: Tuesday 23 August 2022

Humanity’s relationship with nature is a conundrum that often begs disbelief. Millions worship nature in all its myriad forms. Many consider themselves as intrinsic part of nature, while several others seek to damage the very nature that sustains all life on earth.

We don’t see this complicated thought in action anywhere than in our relationship with rivers. Rivers are the bedrock of civilisation and perhaps that of life itself. Fresh water that flows on the surface of this planet is facing an unprecedented threat from us.

We walk to a river to bathe in it, very often, drink from its flowing sparkle.

Religious practices thrive along riverbanks. In some cultures, the newborn is blessed by the waters that flow through the land and often, the dead spend their final journey on ancient waters to meet the sea. 

Yet, we throw thrash with impunity, abandoning even dead animals along its shores.

And then, in an apparent act of repentance, we spend unimaginable sums of money on restoring dying waterways. 

In a never-ending cycle of hubris, rivers are hurt until they die, unable to recover as their basins are modified. So, why do we do it?

In an exercise spread over 50 river systems across India, young interns have documented the relentless onslaught against rivers. 

As they walk along the shores, they are confronted with an onslaught of degradation that belies all beliefs.

Rivers across geographies are stressed, often reduced to a trickle and frequently transformed beyond recognition.

It is not just the administration to blame; it is the common person too.

The interns have travelled to distant sources, reporting the pristine nature of a river in its upper reaches and the almost shocking degradation as rivers flow downstream.

The rivers transformed from being drinkable in flowing streams to barely palatable within a few kilometres. They turned in to fit only for bathing further downstream before turning into drainage as they pass our growing cities. 

Yet the interns revel at the wonder of a river which sometimes springs a final surprise and recovers when allowed to rejuvenate across our country’s vast hinterland.

Yet, even in its most pristine state, endless dams alter the ecology of river systems, while diversion in lower reaches further damages the biodiversity irreparably.

A new disturbance to river ecology is the proliferation of riverside development projects that aim to beautify a dying river as it passes through important cities.

If the river was a person who could communicate, it would lament the alterations that it had to endure at the hands of zealous planners.

Do the rivers and all the birds and trees that depend upon them not have equal rights as humans who often appropriate nature from self-centred notions?

Are we as a community under the impression that a river is just a body of water that flows to quench our thirst? Even so, we continue to pollute it in ways our interns describe as painful.

People choose to discharge waste conveniently in the absence of a waste management system to regulate disposal. In some hill towns, toilets are directly discharged into streams.

Dead carcasses are found on slopes. Even popular tourist destinations, while maintained to a high degree of hygiene, are unfortunately surrounded by waste, the Taj Mahal is a case in point.

What can count as a threat to a river? Is it the proliferation of mining, dams, pollution and diversion, or is it apathy that belies the future envisioning of a healthy planet?

Do beneficiaries in distant cities constantly remind themselves of the gift of nature?

Do they consider that water in their taps may be flowing due to the forceful migration of displaced people, who cling to memories of rivers that sparkled and jumped over little rocks?

As long as rivers are reduced to extraction banks, displaced people who value a river in a way others cannot fathom will continue to be neglected.

Yet, despite an almost universal degradation, we still find people like a retired government school teacher who cleaned the Tamirabharani river, near Tirunelveli, every day for the past 30 years.

People continue to work and protect the rivers voluntarily. Adivasis still consider rivers as extensions of their religious and spiritual beliefs.

Several people still come together every day in different parts of the country to revive and preserve waterbodies. 

They acknowledge the river as a composite whole, not a resource to be extracted.

The future of our rivers, mountains and lakes can perhaps be secured if we imbibe the philosophy of respecting them.

By recognising the rights of rivers, we also recognise that the decision-making powers are no longer ours. We are nothing but a small part of the wheel that turns our planet.

Rivers cannot be revived unless we revive ourselves because, whether we like it or not, we have reached a stage in the planet’s history where our every action causes an equally extreme reaction in nature.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.