Poison river

Mythology has named Yamuna after the sister of Yama, the Hindu God of death. With the presence of toxic pesticides and chemicals in the river, this nomenclature seems prophetic

By Rajat Banerji, Max Martin
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Poison river

-- (Credit: Photographs: Amit Shanker / CS)This article began with a very simple thought. The Centre for Science and Environment's (cse) campaigner on sustainable water management, Himanshu Thakkar, had prepared a draft paper on urban drinking water in which he had reviewed a number of documents and newsclippings that the Centre's library had gathered on the subject. As I read through the draft, I found document after document lamenting the fact that people did not have adequate water and that massive investments would have to be made to ensure the availability of enough water for drinking and other domestic needs. But the literature contained little reference to 'clean water'; and this reference pointed essentially to bacteriological contamination of water. There was almost no reference to the chemical contamination of our water sources, especially with growing industrialisation and use of chemicals in modern agriculture.

I wondered whether this was another one of those 'untold stories' which nobody cares to investigate and bring to the attention of the public. Suddenly, I came across a news item which described the woes of the people of Agra who suffer from pollution of the Yamuna river by India's capital city, Delhi. If Agra was suffering because of Delhi, was Delhi suffering because of the industrial and agricultural activities in the upstream state of Haryana? Haryana, as we all know, is a major Green Revolution state, using massive quantities of pesticides. Besides, industrial growth has also been taking place in the state with very little pollution control. Where are all these agricultural chemicals and industrial toxins ending up? The answer was obvious: in the Yamuna, which brings drinking water to Delhi. Something was very wrong here; we were deeply ignorant about a critical issue that literally affects our daily lives.

Since Himanshu was involved in our work on traditional water harvesting systems, I decided to ask Down To Earth reporters Max Martin and Rajat Banerji to find out the level of chemical contamination of the Yamuna; whether this contamination was being removed before drinking water was supplied to the people of Delhi; and, what was happening to the people of Agra. Rajat took the responsibility of following the river down till Delhi, and Max was to follow the river from Delhi to Agra.

Today, when science has made so much progress and almost nothing is beyond human reach, the biggest cause of death is ignorance. What Rajat and Max found -- and they found an enormous lot -- revealed that there is some scientific activity going on in this field, though it is far from being brought to the notice of the public. Their findings, which are presented to the reader in the following pages, make it very clear that public ignorance is the biggest threat to public health.

Rajat and Max tell us that the river is badly polluted and getting worse every hour. That despite this, nobody treats the raw river water to get rid of the contaminants. Because costs are high. Because we have not even thought of treating drinking water for chemical contamination. As a result, all the poisons are coming straight to us, day after day -- probably a major reason why people in Delhi have so much pesticide residues in breast milk and fatty tissues. Thus, industrial and agricultural development in Haryana is taking place at the cost of the health of millions in Delhi. And Delhi, in its turn, is urbanising and industrialising at the cost of Mathura and Agra. A tale of 'who cares what happens to those who come after us'... down the river, down the economic ladder and down the generations. Whether they live or die is none of our concern. If you get angry reading this report, do write to us.

Anil Agarwal january 2, 1997. Alarm bells began ringing in capital Delhi's water treatment plants when massive amounts of ammonia were detected in the waters of the Yamuna at the Wazirabad barrage. The two treatment plants at Wazirabad and Chandrawal promptly curtailed their production of potable water by half, and Delhi's citizens reconciled themselves to yet another harrowing day without water. The ammonia, said chief engineer A K Gupta of Delhi Water Supply and Sewage Disposal Undertaking (dwssdu), had seeped into the waters owing to the release of industrial wastes from Haryana.

This was, of course, a tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Yamuna had been named after the sister of Yama, the dreaded god of death in the Hindu pantheon, so says mythology. In fact, with the presence of alarming levels of highly toxic pesticides, heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals in the waters of the river just before it reaches important waterworks, mythology could well have a touch of the prophetic in this case.

With an annual flow of about 10,000 cubic metres (cu m) and usage of 4,400 cu m (of which irrigation constitutes 96 per cent), the river accounts for more than 70 per cent of Delhi's water supplies. The presence of deadly pesticides like ddt, aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, benzene hexachloride (bhc) and endosulfan in its waters has been a long-acknowledged fact. Some of these -- whose traces have far exceeded limits considered fit for human consumption -- are persistent organochlorines (ocs) responsible for causing serious maladies like cancer.

Available water treatment facilities are not capable of removing the pesticide traces. Waterworks laboratories cannot even detect them. Worse, Yamuna leaves Delhi as a sewer, laden with the city's biological and chemical wastes. Downstream, at Agra, this becomes the main municipal drinking water source. Here too, existing treatment facilities are no match for the poisons. Thus, every consumer in Delhi and Agra ingests unknown amounts of toxic pesticide residues each time he or she drinks water.

The trouble with our rivers
India consumes around 86,311 tonne (t) of technical-grade insecticides annually to cover 182.5 million hectare of its cultivated land. Insecticide Pollution in Indian Rivers, a study carried out by N P Agnihotri, S P Mohapatra, V T Gabhiye and Manju Raina of New Delhi's Indian Agricultural Research Institute (iari) (published in The Environmentalist in 1995), found traces of beta isomers in Indian rivers, including the Yamuna. The beta isomer, which is a carcinogenic oc, accumulates in river waters due to its stable chemical structure, low vapour pressure and high resistance to microbial degradation. The study noted that most Indian rivers passed through agricultural fields and were contaminated by insecticides used for crop protection. "Residues of persistent organochlorines are found in many rivers. ddt, aldrin and heptachlor have been found in excess of guideline limits," it said, adding that leaching from agricultural fields was the singlemost important non-point source of pollution (one which is unspecified, and therefore, cannot be measured accurately) to the aquatic environment.

An estimated 57 million people depend on Yamuna's waters. According to the iari study, "Although phased out in the West, persistent organochlorines are used in large quantities in India because of their effectiveness and low cost. Production of organochlorines is more than the production of all other insecticides taken together." It goes on to point out an alarming truth: with increasing population and frequent outbreaks of diseases, the amounts of pesticides that would be used for higher agricultural yields and for vector control would increase correspondingly.

State of the river…
…when it reaches Delhi. Micropollutant levels in monsoon (July) and a dry month (March), 1995
Micropollutants July March
NT: Not traceable
Pesticides are in nanogram per litre and heavy metals* in milligram per litre
Source: Report on Water Quality Monitoring of Yamuna, 1996, CPCB
Shut downs
Water treatment plants in Delhi have been closed down
due to high pollution loads several times a year


Number of times each year
1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994
Haiderpur 16 8 3 8 9 6
Wazirabad - - 1 2 3 13

The central pollution control board (cpcb), on its part, had found endosulphan residues -- alpha and beta isomers -- in the Yamuna in 1991. An earlier study by H C Agarwal (Delhi University) had traced ddt residues amounting to 3,400 nanogram per litre (ng/l). However, later cpcb studies showed reduced ddt levels. To gauge the immensity of the threat which looms over our collective lives, we need to trace the river's flow -- which has been divided into five segments ( see box: The segments ) on the basis of hydro-geomorphological and ecological characteristics -- down to its final reaches.

Upper segment
The Haryana factor: Wastes from Yamuna Nagar, Panipat, Sonepat, Karnal and other towns of Haryana and its vast agricultural fields significantly contribute to the pollution load in the river. Industrial discharges change the physico-chemical properties [such as hardness, conductivity, ph value, turbidity, chemical oxygen demand (cod) and dissolved oxygen (do) of the water, thereby affecting aquatic life. Certain natural geological formations are also a known source of some chemicals and heavy metals. For instance, in Haryana, natural sources contribute heavily to pollution in the river near Panipat; drain no viii (which branches off the Western Yamuna Canal or the wyc) receives 21.9 t of chlorides per day from natural sources.

Then there is the persistent presence of pesticides. The consumption of pesticides in Haryana in the years 1995-96 was to the tune of 5,100 t. Out of this, bhc accounted for 600.24 t, malathion 831.48 t and endosulphan, 263.16 t. The state department of agriculture estimates that 12.5 per cent of the Yamuna basin has forest cover, 27.5 is wastelands, 53 per cent is agricultural land and the remaining area, villages, towns, cities and roads. There are plans to bring an additional 27.5 per cent under agriculture; the increase would not only mean more abstraction from the river, but also greater use and subsequent runoff of fertilisers and pesticides.

A K Mehta of the state environment department agrees that agricultural runoffs could be dangerous for people who consume this water. Terming pesticide and fertiliser residues as "slow poisons", he says that the state government had only recently awakened to this source of pollution. "We have been trying to get some research institute to do this study for us for the past year-and-a-half," he states. "Somehow, the plans haven't been finalised and we are hoping the agricultural university at Hissar will take up the research. " He points out that it would be necessary to study the effects of fertilisers and pesticides on soil salinity, their dissipating powers, and finally, what amounts enter the river.

mef officials state that agricultural runoffs being a non-point source of pollution, it is difficult to quantify what percentage gets into the river. "This would depend on the nature of soils, vicinity to the river, or the drain that eventually ends up in the river." They too do not have any studies to specify either the amount or trace the precise areas that cause this pollution.

Mapping the flow in Haryana: Yamuna's pollution starts from Tajewala in the upper segment. At Tajewala, two canals, the wyc and the Eastern Yamuna Canal (eyc) divert all the river waters -- save in the three monsoon months -- into Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (up). The wyc crosses Yamuna Nagar, Karnal and Panipat ( see maps ) before reaching the Haiderpur treatment plant (which supplies part of Delhi's water), receiving wastewater from Yamuna Nagar and Panipat.

Drain nos ii and viii branch off the wyc to augment the water in the river. Another augmentation canal branches out of the wyc at Yamuna Nagar, and rejoins the canal about 80 km further downstream at Karnal. All domestic and industrial discharges from Yamuna Nagar is let out into this canal. Water from the augmentation canal is used for irrigation. However, when excess water from the wyc is let into it, pollutants are flushed into the wyc downstream at Karnal. Thus, a few times a year, there is a sudden and massive increase in pollution loads when the water reaches Haiderpur.

Furthermore, at Panipat, discharges from the Panipat sugar mill and distillery are let out into a disused canal, which has a kutcha dam across it. Sometimes, when the effluents cross the dam, it results in a whopping increase in biological oxygen demand (bod) loads in the wyc. A cpcb inspection report estimated that there were 1,00,000 cu m of effluents in the disused canal, having a bod level of 1,380 mg/l. According to the report, when this water enters the wyc, it carries with it a total of 125 t of bod and the bod levels reach 17 mg/l at Haiderpur; the acceptable bod levels for raw water meant for treatment are three mg/litre.

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