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Ganga needs water, not money by Sunita Narain

Ganga needs water, not money  by Sunita Narain

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?

Pollution  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 .

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