The Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
A study done by the Central Pollution Control Board showed that around 70 percent of the pollution in the Yamuna is human excrement. In large metropolises such as New Delhi, 3.6 billion tonnes of sewage alone are dumped daily – but only half of that amount is effectively treated and the rest flows down the Yamuna, daily, making it over 100,000 times higher than limits safe for bathing, resulting in widespread waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea from drinking and bathing in the affected water. With our trip to India, we can attest to the fact that what we saw were rivers so polluted from mankind – both human excrement and industrial pollution – that it almost seems an impossible task to clean up this country’s major rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna. Yet, there were people who spoke to us on camera who offered hope.
“Every society must understand how the excreta it produces is managed. It teaches us many things about water, about waste, about technologies to clean, economics and politics: of who is subsidized to defecate in our societies. But, most importantly, it teaches us humility. We know so little about our own world. If we knew better, we would understand why we are failing to ensure our present and why we will all need to do things differently, if we want to safeguard our future.” Those statements came from Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a watchdog group in New Delhi. This five foot one inch dynamo was a source of many gold nuggets of information about the health of rivers in India – specifically about the Yamuna and the Ganges.
Her chat on camera was not all “doom and gloom” however and she offered hope that there were a lot of young, bright minds in India who had the will and the knowledge to make a positive change in the Yamuna and the Ganges – “within our generation,” she told us hopefully.
Our travels in India also took us to the largest gathering of mankind in the world – the Kumbh Mela – a religious festival held in Allahabad where, on one day of our filming there, 30 million people gathered at the river’s edge.
When asked about the Yamuna, without hesitation she told us, “the river is dead, it just has not been officially cremated.”
Traveling down road to Kanpur we were able to access a tannery (tanneries are the major source of pollution of the Ganges ) where the owner denied the tanneries were polluting the Ganges and that it was a “misunderstanding and lack of knowledge on the part of most of India’s citizens to think the tanneries were a factor in the sad state of the Ganges today.”
To contrast the tannery owner, a notable environmentalist – Rakesh Jaiswal – stood by the river and sadly stated that the Ganges was laden with chromium sulfate, used as a leather preservative and associated with cancer of the respiratory tract, skin ulcers and renal failure. Arsenic, cadmium, mercury, sulfuric acid, chemical dyes and heavy metals can also be found in this witches’ brew – a brew emanating from the tanneries in Kanpur,” he told us. “I would never have imagined the River Ganga could get like this, with stinking water, green and brown colored,” he says. “It’s pure toxic muck.”
In Agra, home to one of the “Wonders of the World”, the Taj Mahal, Mark met with Brij Khandelwal, a journalist/activist. “What the people in Agra get to drink cannot be called water by any stretch of imagination,” Brij told Mark. “At several points the water is jet black with a thick layer of waste floating on the surface.”
Described now as a huge sewage canal, flowing by the iconic Taj, the Yamuna water is unfit for human consumption. It cannot even support bacteria or aquatic life.
For us, India was magical and yet, very sad. On the one hand the people treated and looked upon their rivers as Goddesses, yet their practices were countermeasures to the health of the rivers. The rivers pour clear and clean out of the mountains, then become sewers in the Gangetic plain. One of the biggest problems is, simply, what do to with the excrement of a billion people. Few of them have toilets, as Westerners understand the word. Globally, 1.2 billion people are still defecating in the open, approximately six hundred million of them in India. By 2010 more than half of India’s billion people had access to a cell phone while only a third had some form of toilet to use. This is a major problem that we were able to capture on camera. These half a billion people depend on the Ganga and contribute to its abuse in this most elemental way.
Thankfully, there are a few water heroes who continue to try to tackle this problem.