Editorial: A Yamuna Wetland, anyone?
A river is the sum of many parts, so is the Yamuna. It’s about 1350 km long, flowing through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and forms border with Himachal Pradesh. But efforts to ‘clean the river’ have focused on a tiny 22-km stretch as it flows through Delhi. Admittedly this is the crux of the problem, but we are missing the wood for the trees. The river is over-exploited, encroached and polluted along most of its length.
Let’s start with the upper reaches, when it’s a Himalayan river. The barrage at Dakpathar draws out a substantial bit of the water into a canal that feeds a power plant at Dhalipur Lake.
Downstream, the Asan barrage diverts more water into another canal to power another plant opposite Paonta Sahib. This channel rejoins the river at the Hathnikund barrage, where Yamuna’s tribulations start.
The Eastern and Western Yamuna canals drain most of the water out of the river at this point. They feed the profligate agricultural maw of western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana where farmers grow sugarcane and rice. This politically and economically part of UP has been pampered by irrigation schemes for the past century, as has Haryana. Alongside canal irrigation, farmers pump out enormous volumes of groundwater. This deprives the river of any base flows that groundwater used to provide. The only solution is for the two state governments to gradually alter the political economy of the region’s farming. So much of the area’s economy depends on sugarcane that no sudden change is possible but substantial change can be effected over several years.
Yamuna gets back from of its flow by the time it enters Delhi, but here again, the city draws out nearly all the water only to replace it with sewage from many erstwhile storm-water drains. Over 4,550 million litres of sewage (MLD) generated (Central Pollution Control Board estimates). About 800 MLD unused capacity. Only 1668 MLD treated in 32 STPs even though installed capacity is 2470 MLD (CAG Report, 2013). As much as 2900 MLD being dumped in the river as raw sewage, along with industrial effluents.
The solution so far has been more of the same – build pumps, pipes and plants – to save the river. The sad part is, we have spent about Rs 4,500 crore on plans to improve the river’s health, but it remains quite dead. It is time to move on from the PPP paradigm. Past performance is one indicator; the same CAG report says in five years (2007 – 2012), the city added only 4.5 MLD to its sewage treatment capacity, and 900 km of sewers. And as is evident, Delhi has the capacity to treat 54% of its sewage, but treats 37%. More of the same, more of the mess.
Drastic situations call for drastic measures. A few things can help, and it is never too late. Work on water conservation to bring down water supply so there is more water left in the river. It is possible to live with a daily water supply of 120 litres per person without cramping lifestyles of the city’s rich.
The city is developing a master plan to handle its sewage, part of which will deal with reuse. This is welcome. Sewage treatment must be pegged to reuse. There has to be a command area of each STP where users are identified and supplied treated sewage of suitable quality. Possible end users are industry, horticulture, the Delhi Transport Corporation and the Delhi Metro. A STP in Gurgaon supplied treated water to a golf course and builders, so it is possible to do this with a little foresight.
In-situ treatment has to gain traction. The Public Works Department and other ‘development’ agencies are furiously covering up drains. This must stop. This must be replaced with a plan to use drains as treatment zones, where a combination of non-conventional methods can be put to work. Aggregated, they will considerably improve the water quality in the drains before they hit the river.
In-situ treatment must be spread to the river as well. It has a massive flood plain of 97 square km. This is an ideal treatment zone. It will require innovative thinking to create a wetland along the lines of the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) in this area by breaking the river’s main channel into several small ones, each a few feet deep and several wide. The banks of these channels can be planted with grass and shrubs to stabilize them. As with EKW, the Yamuna Wetland (YW, as it can be called) will also have several ponds where people can cultivate fish. As with EKW, people can grow vegetables and rice for local sale. As with EKW, there are recreation spaces interspersed with livelihoods.
This cannot be achieved by engineering. A panel from different backgrounds, engineers, planners, social scientists, limnologists and botanists, need to sit down and develop a detailed plan. An authority such as the Yamuna Wetlands Management Authority needs to be formed by an act of the state government with a budget and management plan. A plan needs to be drawn up quickly and put into effect.
Along with passive measures, YW may need active measures to aerate the water from the drains when they enter the river, along with screens to remove debris. Fountains can be installed for aeration at suitable points. There are several varieties of grass that absorb nutrients from sewage as well as heavy metals. They need periodic harvesting that can provide income for local people and feed for cattle, though a study is needed to ascertain if heavy metals in the grasses pass to the cattle and milk.
A plan such as this, based on an existing and successful model that handles the waste of another large city, is not as ludicrous as it sounds. The statistics are a little different in both cities. EKW cover 12,000 hectares, the Yamuna floodplains 9700. Delhi generates about 5,000 MLD of sewage against Kolkata’s 1,100 MLD (2006 estimates). Therefore, YW may not be as effective but it will certainly make a substantial contribution to reducing pollution while providing avenues for livelihoods and recreation. More importantly, it needs to be situated in a larger action plan for controlling agriculture water use in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana so the river has more fresh water flows.