River conservation

  • 14/08/1997

The government has given importance to the problem of river pollution with the establishment of a National River Conservation Authority chaired by the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, river conservation programmes will be effective only if the ecological, economic, technological and social dimensions of the problem are seen in a comprehensive manner. What ultimately flows down the river is the result of a lot that happens outside the river.

The Ganga Action Plan was mainly conceived to deal with the municipal sewage flowing into the Ganga. Industrial sewage treatment was supposed to be managed by the individual industrial firms. But a number of economic problems were not adequately addressed. Cost of treatment is high and many municipalities are not able to afford the costs. If the municipalities cannot pay for the operational costs of these treatment plants, river conservation programmes will only demand perpetual subsidies.

Only a very small section of the country's urban population benefits from sewerage systems and this section consists of the richest urban people. There is no reason that the government should subsidise this section. The high cost of sewerage systems means that only a small fraction of India's population will benefit from them. A large proportion of the urban population in India still uses the open environment for its ablutions.

It is also an ecologically mindless technology. Firstly, large reservoirs have to be built or large amounts of river waters have to be diverted to supply cities with water that can be flushed down the toilets and, then, this water accumulates in the form of concentrated sewage flows into rivers and destroys the rivers.

It is, therefore, important to take a long-term view of India's strategy for human excreta disposal. Various alternatives are being tried out in different parts of the world, which do not use any water, or use very little water. Current research expenditures in this area are next to nothing.

Secondly, river conservation programmes must take a larger perspective of pollution. At the moment, a major source of pollution - that is, pollution from agricultural fields in the form of chemical fertilisers and pesticides - is not being tackled at all. Where such fields are upstream of the drinking water supply intake points of cities, the pollution goes straight into drinking water because treating for chemicals in water is extremely expensive and is not undertaken in India. Delhi's water supply is a case in point as Delhi sits downstream of the agricultural farmlands of Haryana.

The government must, therefore, encourage farmers to move towards organic farming, failing which they must be encouraged to use biological pesticides or safer chemical pesticides and undertake integrated pest management to reduce the use of pesticides. In other words, we need comprehensive river basin pollution control programmes.

One way to deal with the problem will be to permit water quality rights of citizens. State governments are responsible for implementing water pollution control laws. But many states prefer to encourage indiscriminate urbanisation, industrialisation and agricultural development totally disregarding the health implications of water pollution for people living down stream.

Recently, people in Rajasthan have suffered epidemics resulting from polluted waters coming from Haryana. Citizens who depend on water from inter-state rivers, should have the right to demand that the water entering their state be of a certain qua-lity, so as not to be a threat to their health or impose on them excessively high water treatment costs. Pollution control and prevention costs should be borne by the polluting communities upstream and not the affected comunities downstream. These rights, should allow citizens of a downstream state, to sue the state government upstream responsible for pollution control and prevention. The health costs of polluted water in Delhi would run into several thousands of crores a year. If Delhi's citizens were to sue Haryana for this amount, this would put pressure on state authorities not to be lax.

Thirdly, it is vital to start thinking in terms of urban water conservation and demand management programmes. Overextraction of water from rivers is today a serious problem. The Delhi Water Supply and Sanitation Agency today claims to supply about 200 litres per capita per day for domestic consumption and is planning to increase the average domestic consumption to 225 litres per capita, per day by 2001. By contrast, domestic consumption in Copenhagen, one of the richest cities in the world, is only 138 litres per person, per day and the government hopes to take it down to 110 litres per person per day by 2000 ad. The government has steadily increased water supply prices and used the extra revenue to reduce leakages in the public distribution system.

One other approach for water demand management is to promote rainwater harvesting. High quality water need not be supplied for all uses. For instance, for cleaning floors, for gardens, for washing clothes, for flush toilets and other such uses harvested rainwater without any treatment can be used. Several European cities, including Copenhagen, are encouraging the use of rainwater for such uses. Rainwater harvesting should be made compulsory for all urban households. Madras is one city which has taken a lead in this regard and the whole country can learn from it.

River conservation will, therefore, have to be a joint effort of agriculturists, industrialists, urban managers, ecologists and economists apart from government regulators. It cannot just be a pumps and pipes scheme, which so pleases the hearts of contractors and civil engineers.

Anil Agarwal.

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