Yamuna – A river of waste!

Deeksha Ahuja

The fabled Yamuna River, on whose banks Delhi was born more than 2,000 years ago, is now a case study in the water management crises confronting India. In Hindu mythology, the Yamuna is considered to be a river that fell from heaven to earth.

Today, it is a foul portrait of crippled infrastructure and yet worshipped. From the bridges that soar across the river, the faithful toss coins and sweets into the river- lovingly wrapped in plastic almost everyday. People scatter the ashes of their dead in the river. However, the Yamuna itself is clinically dead!

New Delhi knows very well that water is a precious and increasingly scarce resource. When summer arrives and temperatures rise in the city, most parts of the capital still have only four hours of tap water readily available everyday.

The rest of the time, people use water tanks that are installed in all buildings. In reality, those precious four hours are often reduced to two and the tanks are half empty. So, municipal trucks move around through the city with water to fill tanks in an emergency. People end up often paying twice as much as they would if they had running water at home.

Ever since we could remember, the main source of city water has always been the Yamuna River, a major tributary of the sacred Ganges.

The Yamuna enters the national capital, still relatively clean from its 246-mile descent from atop the Himalayas. The city’s public water agency, the New Delhi Jal Board, extracts 229 million gallons of water every day from the river, its largest single source of drinking water. As the Yamuna leaves the city, it becomes the principal drain for New Delhi’s waste. Residents pour 950 million gallons of sewage into the river each day.

Crossing through the capital, the river becomes a noxious black thread. Clumps of raw sewage float on top. It is hardly safe for fishes, let alone bathing or drinking. New Delhi’s population is now around 16 million, which has expanded by roughly 41% in the last 15 years, according to official estimate. As the number of people living in the city increases on an average, more than half of the sewage they pour into the river goes untreated.

A government audit last year indicated that the Jal Board had spent USD 200 million which had yielded ‘very little value’. The construction of more sewage treatment plants has done little to stanch the flow as sewage lines are badly clogged and because power failures leave them inoperable for hours at a time.

Making matters worse, city neighbourhoods like Janta colony are not even connected to sewage pipes. Open sewers hem the narrow lanes of the slum. Every alley carries their stench. Some canals are so clogged with trash and sludge that they are nothing more than green-black ribbons of muck. It is therefore a mosquitoes’ paradise. Malaria and dengue fever are regular visitors.

Carrying the capital’s waste on its back, the Yamuna meanders south to cities like Agra and Mathura. It is their principal source of drinking water too. Delhi’s downstream neighbours are forced to treat the water heavily, hiking up the cost.

Despite efforts made over two long decades and expenditure totalling to Rs 1,500 crore spent on cleaning up the river, the pollution in the Yamuna has not decreased. As per the official data accessed by non-government organisation Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan through the Right to Information Act, the total length of the polluted stretch of the river has gone up to 600 km now.

Yamuna is of critical importance to New Delhi but 90% of city water, coming from this river, is seriously treated. `Yamuna is a lifeline for Delhi` and Delhites should put in joint efforts to save the river!

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