Banding Together Against the Degradation of Rivers

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Posted by: Sumaira Khan and Nilay Sagar
Category: Livelihoods and Natural Resources
Banding Together Against the Degradation of Rivers

Rivers, the arteries that connect communities and cultures, enabling trade and exchange of ideas, have been called lifelines of civilization for a good reason. A Shakespearean analogy from plays such as the Seven Ages would convey that rivers go through different stages, each with unique characteristics and functions: from aiding in power generation in its youth to forming deltaic plains that act as a bridge in its old age.

Despite their crucial role, the care and attention rivers require in this increasingly polluting world has been neglected, often resulting in mere platitudes and lip service. Toxic effluents continue to position their life-sustaining waters, while opportunities to develop run-of-river projects remain all too scarce.

In March 1997, in Brazil, the first International Meeting of People Impacted by Dams approved the International Day of Action Against Dams and for Rivers, Water, and Life.

How did we reach here?

It can be understood why Jawaharlal Nehru called dams the ‘Temple of Modern India,’ especially in the context of their contribution to India’s energy mix. Recent steps such as including hydropower in the Renewable Purchase Obligation (RPO) and programs such as the Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (DRIP) highlight their significance.

But dams are notorious for:

  • altering river flow regimes: they lower the minimum level of ecological flow necessary to sustain the rivers’ ecological life, such as freshwater plankton, fishes, and mammals. Dams also,
  • trapping much sediment, due to which the erosion rate increases downstream as water flows down at a higher speed, and
  • causing fragmentation of the riverine population.

Consider it with an example: the population of dolphins in the river Ganga has been fragmented. Dams cause them to isolate into smaller and more vulnerable sub-populations, which can lead to inbreeding, reduced genetic diversity, and increased risk of extinction.

Dams are aided by issues such as:

  • Eutrophication: excess nutrients are introduced into rivers, which can increase aquatic life growth, thereby changing the composition of the marine ecosystem,
  • Development of waterways: waterways can cause an increase in sedimentation, leading to reduced channel capacity and change in habitat availability and quality for aquatic organisms, and
  • Biomagnification: substances such as heavy metals that pollute the river ecosystem enter the food chain through illegal factory disposal.

What has been done to improve and maintain riverine health?

Cultures and how people interact with nature can play a significant role in conserving our natural resources. Like the Chipko movement, people’s passionate involvement has significantly changed how our resources are revered globally.

For instance, the New Zealand Parliament passed a law that granted legal personhood to the

Whanganui River, which is considered sacred by the Maoris.

The river was made an entity with legal rights and obligations similar to a person’s. Under the law, the Whanganui River is represented by two guardians, one appointed by the Maori people and one set by the New Zealand government, thus explicitly involving people’s interests in decision-making.

How has Indian policy safeguarded river health?

●      Conservation Missions such as Namami Gange

Launched in 2014 with a budget of 20,000 crores, this initiative emphasizes public involvement, sewage treatment infrastructure, riverside development, and complete river basin management while raising awareness about the importance of river health.

This model, albeit slow, has created over 100 sewage treatment plants and roughly 50 sewage management projects alongside the river. The Namami Gange also focuses on Water Sensitive Urban Design, which ties up with SDG 11 and is a concept that can be scaled for other rivers in India.

●      Introducing E-flows to the Indian River Basins

Environmental flows, or E-flows, are the regulated quantity and timing of water flows necessary to preserve the ecological integrity of the riverine ecosystem. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change has created guidelines for ensuring E-flows in rivers nationwide.

The E-flows rules dictate that a minimum of 20% of the average monthly flow should be maintained in the river throughout the year. The rules also require that water be allocated to various sectors based on priority usages, such as drinking water, irrigation, and industry.

●      Using bioremediation

NGOs like the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) have developed a bio-remediation process to clean up the Yamuna. The process involves using natural microbes and enzymes (like Alteromonas, Arthrobacter & Burkholderia) to remove pollutants from the water.

●      Zero Liquid Discharge

Zero Liquid Discharge is a method by which wastewater generated in any activity is treated and reused. According to a 2018 report, India is a country that not only faces severe water scarcity but also has over 380 Polluted Rivers, of which over 40 are critically polluted, making Zero Liquid Discharge a crucial solution for industries and municipalities to minimize water usage and pollution into the rivers.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has launched the National Clean Energy Fund to provide 25% of the project cost for ZLD as financial assistance to industries for adopting ZLD systems.

Besides their apparent importance, rivers are essential diplomacy and federal relations tools. River water sharing has long been the bone of contention between states and the reason for animosity between many nations. The dams like Jiexu, Zangma & Jiacha built upon the Yarlung Tsangpo, or the River Brahmaputra, have been a gordian knot between India and China.

Thus, on the International Day of Action for Rivers, India should adopt a holistic approach towards rivers, especially by investing in data-driven strategies to improve into rivers’ environmental, geopolitical, and federal health.


Kundu, S., Coumar, M. V., Rajendiran, S., Rao, A., & Rao, A. S. (2015). Phosphates from detergents and eutrophication of the surface water ecosystem in India. Current science, 1320-1325.

Dyson, M., Bergkamp, G., & Scanlon, J. (2003). Flow: the essentials of environmental flows. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK, 20.

Yaqub, M., & Lee, W. (2019). Zero-liquid discharge (ZLD) technology for resource recovery from wastewater: A review. Science of the total environment, 681, 551-563

Sinha RK, Kannan K. Ganges River dolphin: an overview of biology, ecology, and conservation status in India. Ambio. 2014 Dec;43(8):1029-46. doi: 10.1007/s13280-014-0534-7. Epub 2014 Jun 13. PMID: 24924188; PMCID: PMC4235892.

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Author: Sumaira Khan and Nilay Sagar