Dams · Rivers

Cleaner rivers in lockdown: Lessons we can learn

Within a week of 21-day long lockdown in India that started at midnight on March 24, 2020, several reports in print, electronic and social media have been doing rounds showing remarkable improvements in water quality in many rivers in the country. Most of these are on the basis of naked eye observations in the form of pictures and videos by people.

Some of the reports quote pollution control boards’ officials and experts with some analytical data. People generally believe that the shutting down of industrial units has led to reduction in discharge of industrial effluents in the rivers, breathing fresh life in pollution laden streams. It’s right that there is halt in industrial belts and there is less industrial pollution reaching the rivers. However there are other factors contributing to the change in the scenario. 

This account documents the changes in rivers and suggests way forward for pollution control mechanisms in the country. First let us look at reports of cleaner rivers, that come from a number states including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, among others. The rivers involved include Sutlej, Buddha Nullah, Cauvery, Ulhas, Waldhuni, besides Ganga and Yamuna.

Sutlej River

In Punjab, the pollution discharge has reportedly fallen sharply in Buddha nullah[i] which carries the effluents into Sutlej river. According to Jasvir Singh, sub-divisional officer (SDO) with the discharge wing of the irrigation department on March 2, an average of 255 cusecs of discharge was recorded, which fell to 220 cusecs on March 16 and further came down to 197 cusecs on March 30.

The report also says that of the total 2,423 industrial units in Punjab polluting the Sutlej, the majority, 2,028, are in Ludhiana, including 228 dyeing and 1,649 electroplating and surface treatment units which directly or indirectly release untreated waste into the nullah.

Amid speculation of reopening of industrial units in the state, the activists have urged the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to order collection and videography of sampling of nullah[ii] water at inlet and outlet points of all sewerage treatment plants (STP) located at Ballo Ke, Bhattian and Jamalpur to check pollution level.

The Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh, one of the largest pharmaceutical industrial clusters in Himachal Pradesh has also closed[iii] manufacturing operations. Though pharmaceutical units and continuous process industries have been exempted from lockdown orders, a large number of such units voluntarily shut their operations. The industrial activities in the area have been known for polluting Sarsa river a tributary of Sutlej. This also led to some improvement. However no report is available about this aspect.

Wildlife Department to study lockdown impact on ecology
Beas River (The Tribune) 

In a letter to the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PCB), Environment and Climate Change Department director Kahan Singh Pannu stated that the board wanted “to conduct a detailed study[iv] of the current pollution level scenario, status of various pollutants and their impact in reducing the pollution load”.

Cauvery River

The prohibition of industrial and religious activities in the old Mysuru region has helped reduce the pollution[v] level on Cauvery river. According to Karnataka State PCB, the quality of water in Cauvery and tributaries like Kabini, Hemavati, Shimsha and Lakshmanathirtha is back to what it used to be decades ago. The board has also decided to take and test water samples under the national program, “Monitoring of Indian National Aquatic Resources and the Global Environmental Monitoring Scheme”.

clean cauvery

According to one more report, the elderly people on the banks of the Cauvery river in Karnataka say they have not seen the river in this clear form[vi] in several decades. The Cauvery is breathing free again. What this essentially means is that all it needed was just one week of shutdown to show its resilience. 

Kasadi, Waldhuni, Ulhas

The condition of rivers[vii] flowing through of urban and industrial stretches in Mumbai has also seen some improvement. The Maharashtra PCB officials have said post lockdown around 60% of the industrial units in the region are closed and there is reduction of industrial effluents in rivers by upto 50%.  The report claims that Taloja creek, Navapur creek in Tarapur and patches of the Waldhuni near Ulhas creek are the stretches where the river has rejuvenated. The fish may take a little longer to replenish in these otherwise polluted zones.

Ganga River

Most of the reports mentioning improvement in river water quality in North India are about Ganga and Yamuna. The recent ones even report of Ganga river health improving in Rishikesh and Hardwar on account of closing down of hotels, tourism activities apart from industrial units.

All the hotels along Ganga between Hardwar and Uttarkashi are closed, which means less untreated sewage[viii] entering river, less water being taken away. On Har ki Pauri in Haridwar everyday there used to be over 25000 people and in summer double that number, now there are none. All this has also helped clean Ganga and one sign of that is large number of birds on the river banks all along the river. In Rishikesh also there is increase in water level[ix] and dissolved oxygen (DO) level in the river and less pollution as per Central Water Commission officials.

As per another report, the Uttarakhand PCB is monitoring[x] the quality of Ganga water. A PCB team is regularly collecting samples from Devprayag, Vikasnagar, Rishikesh and Haridwar to be analysed at Dehradun and Haldwani laboratories. “The report by April 15,” PCB chief scientific officer SS Pal said.

Even in lower stretches of river between Kanpur and Allahabad, there are several reports about significant change in river health before and after lockdown. 

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According to the real time water monitoring data of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), out of the 36 monitoring units placed at various points of the Ganga river, the water quality around 27 points is suitable[xi] for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries.

Kalika Singh, the regional officer at Uttar Pradesh PCB at Varanasi, says the water has improved[xii] in terms of both colour and quality. “The DO (Dissolved Oxygen) level upstream (of Kanpur barrage) is 8.7mg per litre and it is 8.1 mg per litre downstream, which is good enough for bathing,” he says. It is widely accepted that healthy water has a DO level of at least 7 mg/litre, although CPCB’s bar is marginally lower.

As per Prof PK Mishra of the department of chemical engineering at the IIT Banaras Hindu University: “30% of the total BOD load is due to industries along the river Ganga, which amounts to 130 to 150 tons per day. The total effluent dumped into the Ganga is around 6500 to 6700 MLD (in) UP stretch and onwards. Around 10% is toxic load from industries, which is equal to approximately 700 MLD. Since all the major grossly polluting industries are closed due to the lockdown, this toxic load is not entering the river now.”

“Due to rainfall[xiii] on March 15-16 in areas where Ganga flows, the water level has also increased, which means that its cleaning capacity has also increased. There is a considerable improvement if we look at the pre-lockdown period and after March 24,” he added. 

The locals in Varanasi are happy. “There is a lot of difference[xiv] when we see the water of the Ganga river today and what used to be earlier. Today, the water looks clean. One of the biggest reasons behind this is that today all factories are closed. People are not taking bath at the ghats. If this is the condition in 10 days, then I believe Ganga river will be like it used to be earlier,” one local said.

Another one added: “The water in the Ganga river has become clean during the lockdown. Nobody must have thought that the lockdown would have such an impact. We feel happy looking at the clean water in the river Ganga.” Besides Varanasi, locals in Kanpur also resonated similar sentiments and said that water in the Ganga river has seen improvement.

However, there is no official report[xv] on the improvement of water quality yet. The improvement is a temporary respite. What is required is more stringent regulations.

The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) is just tinkering with symptoms. They are putting up new infrastructure, creating new agreements, giving more incentives for industries but if there is no transparency or accountability in governance then there is not going to be any real, sustained change.  

Along with lockdown there is increased water flow due to unseasonal rainfall[xvi] and snowfall in some parts of the catchment. Religious activities have decreased, especially in Varanasi, where lesser cremations are happening. The current scenario should shape our future approach of how authorities should work towards rejuvenation.  

Yamuna River: Haryana

There is rise in water level in the river in upper segment in Yamuna Nagar, Karnal, Panipat, Sonipat districts in Haryana. The industrial units in these districts have stopped operations. Local people and some media reports also say there is less pollution in the Yamuna river.

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Yamuna River at Sanoli Panipat. Image Umesh Tyagi April 7, 2020. 

The notorious drain number (DN) 2 of Panipat which carries all sort of industrial effluents to river Yamuna is seen flowing with some clean water now.  The status of Dhanaura escape which discharges industrial effluents in huge volume from Yamuna Nagar in Yamuna near Shergarh Tapu in Karnal is still unknown.

May 2016 image of DN 2 full with industrial effluents. {Shimla Gujran village on the other side of DN-2 (Photo by Vikas Sharma, village doctor who had to fix an air tight aluminimum framed glass door at his clinic to avoid to deadly stench)  https://sandrp.in/2016/05/03/shimla-gujran-in-yamuna-baisn-journey-from-a-flourishing-village-to-a-living-hell/

Images taken in first week of April 2020 showing absence of industrial effluents. 


As per a report, there is more freshwater[xvii] being released in Yamuna river downstream of Wazirabad in Delhi and also the pollution load of sewage coming to STPs in Delhi is lower. “Figures taken by officials from the Wazirabad Barrage showed that on March 17, more than 17,000 cusecs of water was released downstream, which reduced to over 4,000 cusecs by March 27. On April 1, it was 8,000 cusecs. On April 6, it was around 4,000 cusecs.”

Another report says that the BOD of wastewater entering the STP came down[xviii] from 228 mg/l on March 24 to 155 mg/l on April 3.

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As a result of halt in industrial activities and rise in river flows, the condition of Yamuna in Delhi has shown significant improvement[xix]. Following this, the Yamuna Monitoring Committee has asked CPCB and Delhi Pollution Control Committee to study the state of river in this lockdown phase. 

Several videos and pictorial reports have been shared on social media inviting attention and appreciation from all walks of society. The pictures showing river water colour blue are a bit misleading as it is normal for rivers to appear blue under sunny clear sunny weather due to reflection.

Experts have pointed out that the pollution control boards are losing “a lifetime opportunity” to study[xx] the changes to the river. As per a report, the PCB officials had said that they would start the river quality assessment on April 6.

Uttar Pradesh

Improvements have also been seen in Yamuna around Mathura. This report claims remarkable changes[xxi] in Yamuna river water quality there.  

Villagers from Oba in Mathura and Bateshwar in Agra have shared videos showing increase in water level with better quality water flowing in the river.  

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Increased water level in Yamuna river at Oba in Mathura. (Image Rameshwar April 3, 2020) 

Likewise, the situation of river has turned better in Agra city where it usually remains in dry and polluted state. As per report, surplus water from the Ganga Jal Pipeline is also being released in the Yamuna.  The river behind the Taj Mahal, along Mahtaab Bagh has come alive, offering a breath taking view.

1 y mathura
Yamuna river water quality in first week of April 2020. Image Source Ashwani Misra

It is true that due to increased flows the organic pollution level is getting diluted and lock down has tamed chemical pollution by industries that destroys river’s self-cleansing[xxii] properties of rivers. The self-cleansing properties have improved leading to a change in water quality of the river.   

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Yamuna river with increased flow downstream Gokul Barrage, Mathura (Sri Radhey, April 10, 2020) 

Hindon, Greater Noida

Villagers of Momnathal at the confluence of Hindon and Yamuna rivers first reported Hindon river flowing with less polluted water but claimed that the things have fallen back to same status as before.

Some kilometres downstream the Budhiya nullah falls in Yamuna at Manjhawali from right bank. It is loaded with industrial pollution from Faridabad area. Locals have said that there is not much change in the pollution level in the drain.

Different factors that have helped rivers flowing cleaner

The improvement in water quality and flows in the rivers in India now is not just because of halt in industrial effluents entering the rivers. Firstly, in addition to suspension of industrial operations in the lockdown, the unseasonal rainfall in March 2020 particularly in North India including Ganga, Yamuna catchment has been above average. Similarly there has been good and prolonged snowfall spells in mountain area during winter season accompanied with recurring hailstorm. Now with temperature going up, snow melt is also contributing to river flows.

As per India Meteorological Department (IMD), in March 2020, a record seven Western Disturbances (WD) have passed through the north India lashing the region with wet spells. It also says six WDs have occurred so far in the month of April 2020. In fact the Delhi has witnessed wettest March month on record since 1901.

IMD River Basin Cumulative Rainfall Map 1 March to 9 April showing significant rainfall in all rivers basin in March month. 

Thirdly, being the harvesting season there is minimal demands for irrigation from the canals in which the rivers waters is diverted and from rivers too.

Fourthly, the cultural, religious, tourism activities based on the rivers are totally stopped. Closing down of hotels facilities has resulted in less sewage falling in the river. The river based water needs have also fallen. These reasons have further provided river eco-system to be left least disturbed and added clean waters in them.  Lastly the vigorous sand mining operations especially in Yamuna river in Haryana stretch has been stopped. Sand mining depletes the rivers of shallow aquifers.

The treated and untreated sewage is still finding its way into rivers but in absence of toxic industrial effluents and with increase in water flow have considerably helped rivers to assimilate the organic waste. Rivers are known to have self-cleansing properties if allowed to flow and meander freely minus chemical pollution.

But this is temporary relief and not the actual revival of the rivers which needs sustained efforts on multiple issues including judicious use of groundwater, change in water intensive farming practices and protection and creation of forest patches in catchment areas among others.

Lessons for government agencies   

For years, the governments at central and respective states have not seriously and sincerely worked for revival of rivers in India. Despite plans and funds the number of polluted river stretches have increased[xxiii] from 302 in 2016 to 351 as per 2018 assessment of CPCB. Another report[xxiv] of Union Environment Ministry submitted to NGT in April 2019 submitted that the total sewage generation in the country is 61,754 MLD while the treatment capacity is 22963 MLD and the remaining 38791 MLD sewage is flowing into river without treatment.

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Yamuna river in lockdown at Agra. Image Asharni Misra April 6, 2020

Moreover, the government plans are heavily centred on creating infrastructure (STPs, CETPs, sewers, surface cleaning), funding and technology. But all this have failed to deliver so far mainly since there is no attention to governance to ensure that all these (infrastructure, funds and technology) function as designed and there is accountable, participatory governance to achieve that. There has been hardly any confidence inspiring steps to achieve credible environmental flows in the rivers which is key for revival of rivers.  

The lockdown has shown how industrial effluents were chocking the life of the rivers and how miserably the CPCB and PCBs have failed in taking actions against polluting industries despite the fact that Water Prevention and Abatement of Pollution Act, 1974 clearly states that no polluting effluents should be discharged in the water bodies including rivers.

It is unfortunate the pollution boards have so far failed to analyse the impact of lockdown on the rivers and have not put any monitoring plans in place. Scores of citizens, river activists and NGT appointed Yamuna monitoring committee have asked respective agencies to conduct necessary tests.  

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Various media reports on improvement in water quality and quantity of various rivers during lockdown. 

The occasion also calls for overhaul in the functioning of pollution control boards to make them transparent and accountable as they are entrusted with all the legislative powers to take actions against polluting industries which they have not been exercising.

The CPCB, NMCG and PCBs in state must initiate comprehensive monitoring, sample collection and testing to study the impact of lockdown on the rivers health. The exercise should include analysis of biological indicators including changes in micro fauna, aquatic diversity and rivers biodiversity riparian and riverine.

Ensuring that no industrial effluents enter the rivers without adequate treatment should be the next objective. For this, fundamental change in governance of pollution control board is required with clearly defined norms for transparency, participation and accountability.

Sadly the citizens groups and pollution affected riverine communities have no roll in monitoring and abatement of pollution, while in the lockdown most of the information have been collected and shared by the people. This is important lesson that stakeholders can assist the boards in monitoring and improving the plight of the rivers. The authorities must include the river dependent communities and citizen groups in the monitoring of STPs and river water quality to make the pollution control governance participatory, accountable and transparent.  

Improved condition of Yamuna river at Gadaya, Mathura serving cattle, human beings  (Image Roop Chand Sharma, April 11, 2020) 

Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gmail.com)

End Notes:

[i] https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/lockdown-effect-effluent-discharge-in-ludhiana-s-buddha-nullah-drops/story-uUFPVk7yWWxBRW727eztwK.html     

[ii] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/ludhiana/collect-samples-of-buddha-nullah-water-ngt-urged-63893     

[iii] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/himachal/factories-shut-in-baddi-area-60300     

[iv] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/punjab/wildlife-dept-to-study-lockdown-impact-on-ecology-66053

[v] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/cauvery-tributaries-in-old-mysuru-region-look-cleaner-as-pandemic-keeps-pollution-away/article31210429.ece 

[vi] https://thefederal.com/opinion/in-shutdown-cauvery-breathes-life-again-shows-dispute-has-little-to-do-with-river/ 

[vii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/mumbai-region-lockdown-breathes-life-into-polluted-creeks-and-rivers/articleshow/74859330.cms    

[viii] https://www.jansatta.com/national/the-lockdown-has-caused-all-rivers-including-the-ganges-to-get-rid-of-pollution/1371798/

[ix] https://epaper.livehindustan.com/imageview_29026_108826630_4_137_08-04-2020_0_i_1_sf.html

[x] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/ganga-water-cleaner-in-haridwar-rishikesh-lockdown-does-what-years-of-efforts-couldnt/articleshow/75072994.cms

[xi] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/lockdown-helps-improve-health-of-ganga-64936      

[xii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/anxiety-more-time-to-study-for-40k-students-stranded-in-kota/story-LgCluBkrFEITG9qyX16IEI.html     

[xiii] https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/yamuna-rivers-water-looking-cleaner-amid-lockdown-due-to-covid19-delhi-jal-boards-raghav-chadha-2206419

[xiv] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/lockdown-makes-ganga-water-significantly-cleaner-11586022134242.html

[xv] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/lockdown-health-of-river-ganga-improves/articleshow/74946264.cms    

[xvi] https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/cleaner-river-water-better-air-quality-positive-effects-of-lockdown-2206553

[xvii] https://en.gaonconnection.com/yes-the-yamuna-river-is-clean-now-but-for-how-long/

[xviii] https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/more-freshwater-fewer-pollutants-behind-yamunas-new-blue-hues-6350684/

[xix] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/delhi-factories-shut-yamuna-water-sparkles/articleshow/74988548.cms 

[xx] https://www.hindustantimes.com/noida/easy-flows-the-yamuna-as-effluent-discharge-stops-assessment-likely-soon/story-BRJ1vhI9SJPCYkFBLZgjBM.html 

[xxi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8ZUrzUaHAE  

[xxii] https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/lockdown-health-of-river-ganga-improves/1788569 

[xxiii] http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Report%20on%20River%20Stretches%20For%20Restoration%20Of%20Water%20Quality.pdf

[xxiv] http://www.sulabhenvis.nic.in/Database/STST_wastewater_2090.aspx

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