River Basin Management needs sensitive and responsible cities

Industrial and urban wastewater cause maximum pollution of our rivers

Rivers enter into cities as rivers but come out of them as dirty dead drains.  This has to change. We can’t take pride in an urban growth that pollutes, decays and destroys our rivers. Rivers gave us the civilizations; the onus lies on us humans to make these civilizations progressive that respect the existence and quality of our rivers.

India’s rivers are turning into battle fields and the old law of ‘Inter-State River Water Disputes Act 1956’, as toothless as it is, has not been coming of much help.  The battles, which may turn into wars very soon, have happened around distribution of the increasingly scarce river waters.  While some inter-state river water battles are century old, some are as fresh as few months.  Over the decades, the conflicts have grown so have the stakeholders involved in the same.  The cities have emerged as the major stakeholder in such conflicts in recent decades.

Cities pollute rivers the most

In five years, the number of polluted rivers in India has more than doubled. According to the latest assessment by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the number of polluted rivers has gone up from 121 in 2009 to 275. The number of stretches of these rivers has also doubled from 150 in 2009 to 302. With India’s urban population growth rate outstripping the rural growth rate, the bulk of the pollution load that our rivers receive is from urban centres.

The CPCB report says that the sewage generated from 650 cities and towns situated along the 302 polluted river stretches has also increased from 38,000 million litres per day (MLD) in 2009 to 62,000 MLD today. India’s ex-environment minister had said that effective treatment of sewerage in our cities is about 15 to 17% only.

The author’s own studies of the Mahanadi basin, one of the major river systems of India, shows that waste water, including sewerage load discharge of Odisha’s major cities, alone has increased by about 300% over the last two decades.

Ganga and Yamuna, two of the most sacred rivers of the country, face the worst pollution due to urbanization.

A CPCB report of 2013 finds that more than 6087 MLD of wastewater flows into the Ganga from 138 drains, most of it coming from the cities.  Yamuna in Delhi turns into a sewer lane.  Look into the Delhi stretch of 22 kilometers, from Wazirabad Barrage to Okhla Barrage.  Twenty-two drains, carrying waste water including sewage, fall into the river in this stretch. In Delhi, Yamuna has been reduced to a drain.

Industrial and urban wastewater cause maximum pollution of our rivers.  In fact, many reports, including the ones of CPCB that have been referred in this article, suggest that urban wastewater is the largest culprit in polluting our rivers.  However, there is a common perception that urban wastes generally compose of organic contaminants alone.  The fact is otherwise.  Wastewater from our urban areas compose of substances such as grit, debris, suspended solids, pathogens, organic wastes, nutrients, and a mixture of approximately 200 known chemicals.

The polluted rivers have varied dangerous impacts, starting from negative impact on health of humans to that of other species; from health of aquatic and terrestrial organisms to health of economy. As a society that is increasingly considering economy’s supremacy over ecology, we need to understand both the economic costs of river pollution as well.  Effluent discharges into our rivers affect the fishery market, tourism revenue and many a related sector of the economy dependent on rivers.  Our urban bodies simply can’t afford to ignore these costs anymore.

Moving towards smart cities and strategic urban planning would entail integrating ecological and eco-services sustainability planning in urban development.

Rivers have a major stakeholder in this and must be protected and made healthy for urban civilizations to be sustainable and responsible towards other riparian communities dependent on the rivers.

Cities in inter-state water battles

India’s water planning has entered into a very complicated phase at the moment.  In fact, cities have emerged as huge water guzzlers and competitors to irrigation and other demands.  The drinking/domestic water supply system too is biased towards the cities as city dwellers get three to five times more supply than their rural counterparts.  There are hundreds of conflicts going on across the length and breadth of the nation where in rural areas are complaining against water supply to cities from rivers and dams falling under rural jurisdictions.

Our rivers are decaying and the number of inter-state river water disputes too are increasing.  The latest example of such a conflict can be seen over the Mahanadi river.  Dams and barrages in upstream Chhattisgarh for supply of industrial and urban water has irked the downstream state Odisha which is complaining about reduced availability of water in the river due to the obstructions.  The matter has reached to the Supreme Court as the govt. of Odisha has appealed for formulation of a tribunal to settle the dispute.

Going by experiences of inter-state river water disputes in the country, the Mahanadi battle will be a long one for sure.  However, if the governments can work together to assess some of the key factors that are killing our rivers and devise management of the river water in a strategic coordinated manner, they may still work out some solutions to the scarcity and conflict.  One major aspect of this assessment would be to understand the use and abuse of rivers by our cities and urban bodies.

Take the Cauvery conflict for example.  Even as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are engaged in a more than century old conflict over it, Karnataka’s capital city wastes half of the water it receives.  Bangalore is almost entirely dependent on river water.  The city, that is India’s third most populous city, already faces short supply of water and can supply only about 65 liters per person per day (lppd) as against the mandate of 150 lppd.

An analysis by IndiaSpend says that Bengaluru consumes 50% of Cauvery water reserved for domestic use in Karnataka. As much as 49% of this water supplied is what is called “non-revenue water” or “unaccounted for water”, i.e. water lost in distribution, according to the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) data.  It is projected that over the next nine years, the city’s water demand is predicted to be three times more than supply.

Bengaluru is already using a major chunk of the disputed waters but it’s water management system has been disastrous.  The city has also been killing its surface water bodies to build infrastructure.  A proper planning could revert the process.

Proactive plans: let’s begin with Mahanadi –

In basins like Mahanadi, the same situation occurs but the conflict is at a primary stage.  A joint effort between both the state governments and central government can actually make a holistic water management system for the basin where the urban areas are made responsible geographies.  Urban bodies, with more financial and technical resources, can and must help in river basin management by leading with examples.

Droughts and floods both have increased in the Mahanadi type basins.  Cities cause more floods with faulty planning and cause increased water scarcity during droughts by drawing more water, wasting more water and discharging pollutants to our rivers.

The current Inter State River Water Disputes Act 1956 has limited scope to resolve water disputes.  However, water being a basic human right that is fast becoming a scarce one, disputes will grow and our planners need more than just legal instruments to solve the problems.  They need to be proactive in promoting coordinated mechanisms between riparian states that are transparent and participatory.  In this, urban bodies should play an instrumental role so that equity in water management and rejuvenation of our decaying rivers can go hand in hand with participation of both urban and rural population.

For this to happen cities must respect the fact that rivers are ecological entities and civilizations have socio-economic and cultural relations with them.  Cities can’t anymore continue to kill the rivers at their will just because they have more money power and political clout than the rural areas and the ecology itself.  If it needs to make drastic changes in urban policies, be it as it’s worth it.

This article was first published in the Urban Updates Magazine published from New Delhi, India

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