From Clean to Contaminated: Indian Rivers Call for Urgent Action

On a sun-drenched summer day, Vejle Ådal’s serene banks come alive with people strolling along its picturesque shores, casting their lines in tranquil waters, or embarking on leisurely kayak rides. My journey led me to Vejle from a city in India nestled along the banks of a river ten times the size of Vejle Ådal. Strikingly, the residents of my Indian city share no positive experiences with their river. This stark contrast between the two rivers’ realities serves as a compelling exploration.

Unsustainable Growth

I come from Hyderabad — a vibrant metropolis with a population of more than 7 million. The city was established in the year 1591 on the banks of the Musi River, in southern India. It has seen a sharp rise in its economic growth over the past couple of decades. The World Economic Forum ranked Hyderabad as one of the world’s top 10 fastest-growing cities by gross domestic product (GDP). But this growth has been unsustainable. The Musi River’s total length is 260 km, of which around 50 km courses through Hyderabad. This entire stretch is critically polluted, as per the Central Pollution Control Board of India.

Hyderabad generates 2,750 million litres of wastewater every day but has a wastewater treatment capacity of just 906 million litres per day. The remaining 1,850 million litres of untreated wastewater daily ends up in the Musi River and the hundreds of lakes in Hyderabad. Not surprisingly, residents of Hyderabad sarcastically refer to the Musi River as a «nala», meaning a channel of wastewater. Scientific studies into the water quality have highlighted toxic concentrations of heavy metals, antibiotics, and pathogenic multidrug-resistant bacteria.

Musi, Once A River Buzzing With Activity

Historical records that mention Hyderabad are incomplete without the mention of the Musi River. Most mention how the river would swell during the rains and reduce to a trickle in the dry season. The East India Gazetteer, 1815, notes that the river “…runs very rapidly in the rains but in the dry season has scarcely two feet of water.

Another record, H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence & Avondale in Southern India, 1891, paints a vivid picture: “The dry bed of the river is cultivated with cucumbers and vegetable marrows, and alongside the thin stream of water in its centre the native washerman beats to pieces upon the stones the shirts and garments alike of his Native and European clients. Camels stretch out their long necks and drink the turbid water; elephants toss it in cooling streams over their backs, and buffaloes, less careful of cleanliness and of appearance, wallow in undisguised enjoyment in the mud.

But one need not travel that long back in time to see the river in a healthy state. “I often used to go for a swim in the Musi River when I was a kid. We even used to catch fish in it, which is now unthinkable. Until the early 1970s, the river water was also a source of drinking water and provided clean irrigation water for hundreds of farmers. But since the 1980s the river’s condition has worsened,” says Batte Shankar of the NGO Musi Parirakshana Samithi (Musi Protection Committee), pioneering the cause of Musi River restoration since 2000.

The Gradual Death of the Musi River

Dissolved oxygen (DO) is the amount of oxygen available in the water. For thriving aquatic life in freshwaters, a DO concentration of at least 4 milligrams per litre (mg/L) is required. When DO dips below 2mg/L, the water turns hypoxic; unsuitable for aquatic life. In 1969, a study published in Hydrobiologia detailed dissolved oxygen concentration in the Musi River, indicating good health: the DO levels ranged from 7mg/L to 9mg/L. Within two decades, the condition deteriorated. A 1986 study reported that the DO levels plummeted to zero.

Presently, environmental agencies monitor water quality at 12 sites on the Musi River, six of which are in and around Hyderabad city. In 2022, the average DO concentration in the Musi River was less than 1 mg/L at five out of these six locations. In contrast, in 2022 the DO concentration in Vejle Ådal ranged between 7mg/L to 12mg/L. 

The Challenges

Hydrologist and a campaigner of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from Hyderabad, 70-year-old BV Subba Rao, says that the fate of the Musi River is connected to that of the Hussainsagar Lake, with a waterspread of 4.7 Untreated wastewater and industrial wastewater from different parts of Hyderabad flow into this lake and from here, polluted water flows through a channel into the Musi River.

“When I was a kid, I used to visit with my mother the beautiful gardens located along the water channel that connects Hussainsagar and the Musi River. Now, there remain no gardens and the channel carries highly polluted water that raises a terrible stench. Over the years, various projects were initiated to restore the river but all of them failed as they ignored ecological restoration and focused on cosmetic beautification,” says Subba Rao.

Another prominent environmentalist and a public policy expert from Hyderabad, 57-year-old Dr. Donthi Narasimha Reddy says, “There was a time when people would enjoy going for a stroll along the Musi riverfront. The river was not a polluted, stinking mess. There is an urgent need to manage the river as part of a larger River Basin system with a multipronged approach of stopping the inflow of untreated wastewater, reforestation for watershed management, and removing obstructions hindering the river’s flow.”

Musi Is Not An Isolated Case

The ecological destruction of the Musi River is the story of most rivers flowing through Indian cities. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in India monitors water quality at 1,920 locations on 603 rivers. Of these, 279 (46%) are polluted as per CPCB’s Polluted River Stretches for Restoration of Water Quality – 2022 report, which lists 311 polluted river stretches in India. Analysis of the report reveals more than 30 of India’s 46 million-plus population cities are located on or close to the banks of polluted rivers.

River Restoration Challenges and Efforts in Denmark

Things were not always fine with Vejle Ådal. In fact, like most other rivers and streams in Denmark, Vejle Ådal too faces the challenge of alteration of its watercourse. The book Running Waters: Historical Development and Restoration of Lowland Danish Streams provides insights into how the watercourse of Danish streams got severely altered due to human actions, especially intensified agriculture over the last century. A staggering 90% of the more than 64,000 km of streams in Denmark have been impacted by the Anthropocene, leaving the country with almost no pristine streams and river valleys.

To tackle the problem of altered watercourses Denmark has taken up hundreds of river restoration projects across the country, known as «vandløbsrestaurering». The restoration works started as long back as 1983 in Vejle County (Vejle Amt). Various projects have been carried out for the restoration of Vejle Å at Gödding, Bindeballe Bæk, Refsgårde and Lihmskov and of its tributaries, Bindeballe Møllebæk, Egtved Å and Højen Å.

Social entrepreneur, communications coach, and a resident of Vejle, Sara Peterman, says “A clean water stream passes close to my house. I often walk by it, and every time, it offers a sense of well-being and tranquility. There are many places where the water level is shallow and my kids and I can go for a paddle. I feel confident about the water quality.”

Another Vejle resident, Jesper Kenn Olsen, an ultra distance runner and founder of the World Runners Club, believes Vejle is the most beautiful city in Denmark. The main reason: Vejle Ådal. After his second world run through different continents – 36,917 km between 2008-2012 – Jesper settled down in Vejle. “When I returned from the two runs around the world it was quite difficult to find any place that provided the grand nature and beautiful surroundings that I had experienced when running across the different continents. I take a walk or run along the Vejle Ådal almost daily.  A day doesn’t seem complete without enjoying nature and scenery!”, exclaims Jesper.

On the benefits of clean rivers, Jesper explains, “A clean river and an unpolluted nature are important for the well-being of the people, and also for businesses. I coach about 60 ultrarunners from Denmark and abroad. Once a year when I gather the runners for a training camp, it is important for me to be able to provide a beautiful environment – and Vejle Ådal certainly does that. It’s one of the best locations in Denmark because of the diverse terrain.” Flagging an issue, Jesper says, “There has been an increase in heavy traffic in the vicinity of the Vejle Ådal over the past few years. This trend often necessitates enjoying Vejle Ådal during non-peak hours which is regrettable, as it raises concerns about the well-being of the local wildlife. It is surprising that policymakers have not taken substantial action to address this matter, given that Vejle Ådal represents a significant asset for Vejle.”

Different Challenges, Shared Initiatives

As many would like to point out, the challenges faced in the conservation of rivers and their scale vary widely in India and Denmark. For example, consider these statistics:

Wastewater generated by Denmark in 2021: 241 million cubic meters. Wastewater generated by Indian cities in 2021: 26,414 million cubic meters

The longest river in India: Ganga (2,500+ kilometres). The longest river in Denmark: Gudenå (160 kilometres) 

But what binds together these two distant countries are the negative impacts of the destruction of natural resources as the ever-growing threat of climate change looms large. Like Denmark, India is also working to restore its ancient rivers to their pristine selves through various government-funded programs. In 2015, 70% of the rivers (275 out of 390) monitored by the Central Pollution Control Board were polluted whereas, in 2022, the number was reduced to 46% (279 out of 603).

Denmark is a global expert in wastewater treatment and has various success stories to share, like the restoration of coastal waters in Copenhagen. A collaboration between India and Denmark is inevitable. One of them is already in the works – a laboratory to aid in monitoring and improvement of water quality in the Ganga River and its tributary Varuna River. 

When it comes to my hometown, Hyderabad, the government is working on restoring the Musi River and has established the Musi Riverfront Development Corporation to improve the river’s state of affairs. It remains to be seen how long it will take before the Musi River is no longer sarcastically referred to as a «nala» by the people of Hyderabad.

Nilesh Vijaykumar has a M.Sc. Science and Communications, Savitribai Phule Pune University, India. In September 2022, Nilesh relocated to Vejle, Denmark, and is a DDRN correspondent.

Part of Vejle Å, Denmark. Photo: Nilesh Vijaykumar
Jesper Kenn Olsen