Ganga’s water quality improved between 2014 and 2019, experts say pace is slow
The Central government’s ambitious project to clean River Ganga, under its Namami Gange Project (NGP), has borne some fruit with river water from Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand to Uluberia in West Bengal improving between 2014 and 2019, latest data of the Jal Shakti ministry showed.
The dissolved oxygen level has improved at 27 locations while biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and faecal coliform (FC) has improved at 42 and 21 locations, respectively, the information provided by the ministry to Kochi-based Right to Information applicant, K Govindan Nampoothiry, stated.
The ministry has provided an annual average of Ganga water quality on these three parameters, thereby discounting the season variations.
These parameters help in understanding the water quality of an aquatic system. Higher dissolved oxygen (national standard is 5 milligram per litre or more) shows whether water can sustain aquatic life. Lower BOD (national standard is 3 milligram per litre or less) shows there is less amount of bacteria and other microorganisms in water. Faecal coliform (national standard less is than 2,500 coliform in 100 ml of water) indicates the amount of sewage in water.
The data shows that in the past six years the water quality of the river on these three parameters has improved marginally at most locations. Experts say by this pace, the authorities would take decades to make water fit for human consumption.
“The progress so far has been slow. In six years, if Ganga’s water quality has improved by just 10-15 percent, it would take decades to clean Ganga,” said BD Joshi, founder of the Indian Academy of Environmental Sciences, who has worked on the river for more than four decades.
The Central government had initially fixed 2019 as the deadline to clean the national river but extended it to 2022 as the Namami Gange Project (NGP) took off slowly. As on August 1, only 29 percent of the 154 sewage projects taken up have been completed. For these projects, the ministry has allotted Rs 23,120 crore, as per government documents.
Till now, the ministry has approved 310 projects costing Rs 28,790 crore, as per the information provided by the ministry to Rajya Sabha on September 14, 2020. Most of these projects are at an advanced stage of implementation, the ministry said.
A ministry official privy to the information about the project said the sewerage infrastructure projects are coming up in eight states — Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Haryana Delhi and Himachal Pradesh — through which the 2,525-km river flows.
Currently, the 97 towns located on the main stem of the Ganga generate 2,953 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage. However, the available treatment capacity is only 1,794 MLD.
The RTI reply showed the maximum improvement in Ganga water quality has happened in the hills of Uttarakhand, primarily due to effort been made to contain the flow of human and animal sewage. Another reason for this could be that unlike the plains, the flow of industrial waste in the hill is much less.
“We have minimized flow of human sewage by building sewage treatment plants in towns and toilets for all those living close to river Ganga. Work is on for zero sewage into river Ganga in the state,” said Uttarakhand environment minister Harak Singh Rawat.
The reply showed that as the river flows into the pilgrimage city of Haridwar in Uttarakhand, the water quality deteriorates and further falls downstream at the industrial town of Kanpur where industrial waste still flows into the river. The water quality between Haridwar and Kanpur improved between 2014 and 2019 by 8-10 percent.
The water quality was slightly better in Chapra and Patna because of fresh flow of water from tributaries in Bihar such as Kosi and Gandak. But, thereafter, it again fell as the river entered West Bengal. The water quality in Bihar and West Bengal has almost improved by almost 30 percent between 2014 and 2019.
So, the river which has DO of almost 9 and faecal coliform of 200 at Rudraprayag in 2019 turned dirty at Uluberia in Howrah district of West Bengal with DO of almost six and coliform count of 22,000. In fact, the coliform count at Uluberia has not changed between 2014 and 2019, according to the data provided.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and water expert, said that the bigger issue than improvement in water quality is the flow of the river.
“If the flow of the river improves in all seasons, the water quality will improve significantly. But, the reality is that the flow is decreasing and it will have huge implications for people living in the Ganga river basin even if water quality improves,” he said.
Thakkar acknowledged that work has happened in building sewage and industrial treatment plans but the real challenge was its monitoring and efficiency. “The state pollution control boards (who are responsible for water quality management) need to ensure that plants don’t give false reports and work at their maximum capacity,” he said.
“This (improvement in water quality) is nothing compared to what we have spent on Ganga,” waterman Rajendra Singh said.
To revive river Ganga, he said, the government should cancel all proposed dams, re-design existing dams to ensure maximum water flow, push for zero sewage flow in Ganga and relocate all polluting industries away from the Ganga basin area.
“We have sent a white paper enumerating these demands to the Central government. Let’s see what they do,” he said.