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Woeful flows the Yamuna

For long, we have known that the Yamuna during its flow through Delhi is highly polluted. What comes as a surprise is that electronic waste is now at least partially responsible

Delhi has found new ways of contaminating the Yamuna river: electronic waste. As also the subsoil and ground water: A United Nations-backed study pointed out that India generates nearly 5 per cent of electronic waste produced globally in 2016.

Earlier this year, scientists of Jamia Millia Islamia University examined the soil samples from Krishna Vihar locality in Mandoli. This part of the city has become the dumping site of electronic waste. The results were astounding. It was found that improper handling of electronic waste could be a cause of contamination of groundwater with dangerously high levels of heavy metal like lead, cadmium and copper were.

The study found that on average heavy metal contamination is 20 times higher than safe levels as prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The risks of exposure to heavy metals are well established. Not only does it adversely affect the vital organs like kidneys and liver, is known to hasten muscular and neurological degenerative processes that are precursor to ailments like Alzheimer’s diseases and Parkinson’s diseases.

Last year, news website Orb Media conducted a pan global study by collecting 150 samples of tap water from various cities in five continents. The conclusion: More than 80% of New Delhi’s tap water is contaminated by plastic microfibres, which gives Delhi the third highest contamination rate in the world after the US (New York and Washington DC) and Beirut, Lebanon. These microscopic fragments, it was found, enter the water system in several ways, from synthetic fibre clothing, tyre dust and microbeads.

Clearly, digital technology has material, environmentally hazardous consequences. It’s important that electronic waste is recycled, sold or donated; repaired or upgraded and never dumped with the trash. NGOs are trying to pin the responsibility of managing e-waste on multinationals like Apple. But not much has been achieved in this direction.

garbage: Many parts of the city have become a dumping site of electronic waste

So if you had taken to wearing masks outdoors and using air purifiers at home to protect your lungs after hearing all the talk about air pollution, what are you going to do about the water? There has been so much talk about the surfeit of private vehicles on the roads that many people consciously use the Metro or Uber/Ola cabs as much as possible. But now you should think about how you get rid of the old mobile phones, laptops and televisions. Water pollution is not an issue that can be brushed aside any longer.

It’s a bigger problem than one would think. Delhi roads will be inundated with rain water in the forthcoming monsoon. The authorities seem to have learned to live with it, and so the people of Delhi, as the situation worsens with every passing year.

The middle class in Delhi refrains from using tap water for drinking, using filters or reverse osmosis (RO) gadgets. But there’s a sizable section of the population who don’t even have access to safe drinking water. The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) supplies potable water in water deficit areas through around 800 of its own and hired water tankers from 25 emergency centres.

Let’s size up the monster. A recent study titled Water Pollution and its Sources, Effects & Management: A Case Study of Delhi by Shahid Ahmed and Saba Ismail found that dumping of waste as the most important cause, followed by untreated sewage and industrial discharge as important causes of water pollution. The study identified typhoid, diarrhoea, dengue, cholera, jaundice, malaria and chikungunya, to mention a few diseases associated with water pollution. The study recommends certain doable actions to deal with the situation like the need to have a proper waste disposal system and that the waste should be treated before entering in to river or water bodies.

We already know that Yamuna is one the most polluted rivers in the world, primarily the 20-km stretch when it crosses Delhi. A CPCB report submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in January, confirms our worst fears. The levels of ammoniacal nitrogen were found to be much higher than safe levels at almost all locations. The ammoniacal nitrogen level upstream of Khojkipur in Panipat is 0.9 mg/l, while the safe standard is 0.8 mg/l.
As the river enters Delhi, some 18 drains carry untreated waste water into the river. These drains create 80% pollution in the river, then minister for Water Resources and River Development Uma Bharti had said in 2016. As a result, at ITO barrage the ammoniacal nitrogen level rises to 27.9 mg/l—that is, 30 times the safe levels. Also, at ITO barrage, the Dissolved Oxygen (DO) level in the water was conspicuous by its absence. That makes Yamuna a nearly dead river, in fact, a huge septic tank.

In March this year the NGT slammed the (DJB), responsible for water supply in the city, over its submission that Haryana was responsible for the high levels of ammonia in the Yamuna water. The bench headed by Justice Jawad Rahim observed, “You want Haryana to give you more water for dilution of the pollutants in the river but show us what have you done. Yamuna in your territory has become a sewer line.” The NGT directed the Delhi and Haryana governments to identify and address the sources of pollution in river Yamuna and resolve the issue of high ammonia content in the water being provided to the national capital.

The problem is that NGT orders various measures to keep water source relatively clean but is hardly ever implemented in its true spirit by the authorities. Like last year in May, NGT had banned open defecation on the floodplains of Yamuna, as it’s a major source of ammonia in water. Delhi Police was asked ensure it, even impose fines to the tune of Rs 5,000 on the defaulters. Rampant open defecation is an open disregard of the NGT’s orders.

A combined report by World Health Organisation and Unicef says that three in ten people worldwide lack access to safe and readily available access to drinking water. The situation is in Delhi, the capital city of India, is no different.