Rivers have an inherent capacity to cleanse themselves, unless we choke them to death. Consider the European experience of reviving the Danube. It is the second longest river in the continent and the only major river to flow from West to East across the map. Centuries of pollution turned this lifeline of Europe to a murky, stale river in the last decade.
So in 1998, EU International Commission for the Protection of Danube (ICPDR), consisting of 13 member states, was set up to look after not only the river but also the entire basin, which includes also its tributaries and the ground water resources. Thanks to this protection convention, they promoted and coordinated a sustainable and equitable water management plan. They also made a plan for conservation, and rational use of waters. Because of their commitment all the plans were put to action and today just 6 years later the Danube flows crystal clear again.
In Delhi, in 2003, under the Supreme Court directives, more than 3,000 polluting industries were shut down. About 800 major industries were relocated to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. But this was not enough. The Yamuna still contains high levels of pesticides and heavy metals. The thick white foam is the evidence of the heavy amount of chemical effluents in the river.
The Yamuna's capacity to cleanse itself has been overpowered but it is not too late yet to reverse the cycle.
For a lasting solution, the city's waste water (through 25 drains) can be carried away from Delhi by a master drain built underground along the banks of Yamuna to a location away from the river — at least 25 km — to a master water treatment plant equipped with the latest technology for effective effluent treatment.
After recovery, treatment and aeration, the water can be released in stilling ponds or on the flood plains of the Yamuna. This would help revitalise the ground water and return clean water to the river.
The immediate dos-and-don'ts to save the river don't require much debate.
Factories still operating on the banks of the Yamuna must be relocated. Water bodies and catchments areas must be restored wherever possible.
The proposal to set up schools, resorts and mini Manhattans on the riverbanks should not be encouraged. In any case, Delhi and the surrounding areas fall under the seismic zones IV and construction of buildings on the alluvial plains can prove catastrophic.
Summertime riverbed cultivation must not be allowed as large amounts of pesticide and fertiliser runoffs enter the river and hence into our water systems. Heavy amount of ammonia present in these chemicals result in proliferation of algae, choking the river's oxygen supply, killing fish and other organisms of the aquatic food chain.
Uncontrolled religious ceremonies on the banks of Yamuna have also contributed in polluting this river. It must become mandatory for temples and burning ghats along the rivers to have special areas where ashes and garlands can be processed with respect without affecting the sanctity of the river.
The responsibility lies on our shoulders to revitalise the river and offer the city another lease of life. Otherwise, we can hear the clock tick louder every second for our tap-water civilisation.
Mike Pandey is a conservationist and winner of three Green Oscars