Rivers do not ‘Die’ but are Killed


[From “Facts and Documents” a publication of International Farakka Committee, New York on sustainable management of Himalayan Rivers edited by Dr. Jasimuddin Ahmad and Mostafa Kamal Majumder]

River Conservation is not just a question of rescuing a river from pollution and contamination, but much more. There were some references to rivers dying, but in fact they do not ‘die’ but are killed by human action and neglect. Instead of trying to rescue a heavily polluted river or revive a dead or dying river, we must see that these things do not happen and that rivers remain alive and healthy. This calls for a change in the way we think about rivers. Before we talk of ‘conserving’ a river, we must learn to respect it.

From this point of view, I shall give this meeting four catchphrases or slogans: (1) a river is not a drain; (2) a river must flow; (3) a river must have space; and (4) a river is an ecological system in itself, and part of a larger ecological system. Let me explain what I mean.

(1) “A river is not a drain”: In the language of engineers, a river is a drain in the sense that it drains a catchment. That is an accurate technical statement, but it does not give us an idea of the multiple dimensions of a river. A river is not just a conduit taking the water that falls on a watershed to the sea. It performs many other functions in the ecological system and on Planet Earth. It is a sustainer of aquatic life and the ecological system, and it has a life and a personality of its own; it is a part of a people’s history and culture; it is also a sacred resource. It is only if we remember all this that we are likely to respect a river. If we think of the river in reductionist terms as a drain, we are unlikely to respect it, and we will not flinch from throwing waste into it and polluting it.

(2) “A river must flow”: References were made to the self-purifying capabilities of a river, but that would be true only if there is water in the river. That is why I said that a river must flow. It is not a question of ‘minimum flows’. That expression implicitly regards abstraction from the river as the norm and leaving some water in the river as a necessary evil. We have to reverse this and regard flows as natural and abstraction or diversion as a deviation from the norm, to be kept to the minimum. In other words, what we need is not minimum flows; but minimum interference with the flows.

(3) “A river must have space.” Floods are natural phenomena. They occur from time to time, and will continue to occur with varying severity. We must learn to live with them and minimize damage. When floods come, the river needs to spread to accommodate them. In other words, a river needs space. If we keep reducing the space available to a river the consequences will be serious. The natural flood-plains of a river must be respected.

(4) “A river is an ecological system in itself, and part of a larger ecological system”. This is obvious and needs no explanation. It follows that we cannot protect or conserve a river unless the ecological system as a whole is protected and conserved. This calls for a reexamination of lifestyles and our understanding of what constitutes ‘development’.

Among other things, this means a stringent re-examination of ‘water demand’. Reversing the usual practice of proceeding from projections of demand to supply-side answers, we must proceed from recognition of finite supply to managing the demand within that availability. In every kind of water-use major economies are possible and necessary. An important reason for such an approach is the fact that much of the water supplied for any use returns to plague us as waste of one kind or another. The greater the supply of water, the greater the generation of waste. That is a very strong reason for minimizing supply-side answers. In agriculture, there is great scope for getting much more out of each drop of water; in industry we must move towards maximum re-cycling and re-use of the same water and minimum new supply; and in urban and rural water supply, we must re-examine the per capita norms and reduce them, and ensure a more equitable redistribution of the water that is supplied, providing some more water to areas and groups that get too little and imposing severe restraints and penalties on those who over-use water. This will not merely ease the pressure on a scarce resource and ensure greater social justice but will also reduce the generation of waste and the consequent pollution of rivers.

(The above remarks were made at a meeting at the Indian Prime Minister’s Office on 7 July 2007)

Some further clarifications are necessary. (a) For instance, the principle that the river needs space implies that we should not encroach into its space. We are already doing so.

(b) While the idea of a ‘minimum flow’ or ‘environmental flow’ in streams and rivers is welcome in so far as some flow is better than no flow, there is a danger here: people may feel that so long as they have left a small quantity of water in the river, they are entitled to divert the rest. Flows are needed for maintaining the river regime, making it possible for the river to purify itself, sustaining aquatic life and vegetation, recharging groundwater, supporting livelihoods, facilitating navigation, preserving estuarine conditions, preventing the incursion of salinity, and enabling the river to play its role in the cultural and spiritual lives of the people. These multiple and diverse functions and purposes are not fully captured by phrases such as ‘minimum flow’, ‘ecological flow’, or ‘environmental flow’.

(c) The treatment of waste is important, but even more important is the minimization of the generation of waste. Three points need to be noted here. First, practically every drop of water that is supplied for any kind of use (domestic, agricultural, industrial) will return to plague us as waste (sewage, agricultural residue, industrial effluent). The greater the quantum of supply, the greater the generation of waste. This is one more reason (apart from other more familiar ones) for a minimal resort to supply-side answers to real or imagined requirements. Secondly, the use of enormous quantities of fresh water for the transportation of human waste is doubly foolish: it imposes a burden on supply and pollutes that supply. Alternatives to flushing toilets need to be purposefully explored. Also, at the domestic level, the feasibility of a dual supply system with recycling for uses other than drinking and cooking needs to be examined. Thirdly, maximum recycling and re-use must be brought about in regard to water for industrial use, with the goal (not too long-term) of zero effluent.

(d) It is true that rivers in the West (Thames, Seine, and so on) form beautiful parts of the cities that they flow through, and the idea that our rivers should do likewise seems attractive. However, this should not lead to the commercialization of the river front. The prospect of the river front becoming valuable real estate with huge residential and commercial complexes crowding the river is disturbing.

(e) I have no quarrel with a selective approach to river-cleaning projects like the Ganga Action Plan. By all means, let us take up dead or dying rivers carefully and selectively. However, let us try and prevent others rivers from dying. We cannot be selective in that matter. All our rivers, and indeed our ecological systems, are at risk. Let us not kill our rivers first and then adopt plans for reviving them. We must ensure that other rivers in the country do not reach the state of the Ganga and the Yamuna, necessitating desperate rescue efforts. That enlarges the canvas considerably. The conservation of a river cannot be isolated from the conservation of the total ecological system of which it is an integral part. This calls for a rethinking of our ideas of ‘development’. That is too large a subject to be discussed here, but it needs to be kept in mind.

(f) The ‘polluter must pay’ principle is good, but it must not be allowed to degenerate into ‘if you pay, you can pollute’. (Nor should we plan on the basis of the revenues arising from pollution penalties: if the revenues are large, then clearly pollution is not being controlled; minimal or zero revenues would be the best indication of success in minimizing pollution.) ■


Ramaswamy Iyer is a former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resource, Government of India



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