Better late than never, the Indian government has finally made river clean-up an important priority
The Yamuna in India, running through the heart of Delhi, is one of the most polluted rivers worldwide. In fact, the pollution is so bad that the river is now dead for all practical purposes and the city has essentially turned its back on the waterway. However, local government and the Yamuna River Project, an inter-disciplinary research program by the University of Virginia, aim to revitalize the ecology in the area and reconnect Indiaâ€™s capital city back to the water. â€œTheyâ€™ve got the know-how. Weâ€™re there more to provide a sense of envisioning and possibility and cooperationâ€, says IÃ±aki Alday, a professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia and Director of the Yamuna River Project. The plan will be executed over the next two-and-a-half years and will cost Rs 6,000 crore, said officials.
How the initiative started
The Yamuna River Project was born when a visiting professor from India -- Pankaj Gupta -- met Alday at the school of architecture in the University of Virginia. Alday had visited the site in 2014, together with a group of students, and he only recalls black water filled with trash and nothing green in sight. â€œIn the entire river, there was not a single bird. While Delhi is full of birds, the river had not a single living entity around. And what did it smell like? The smell was extremely strong, unbearable, and the water you should never touch.â€, he says.
The potential of transformation
Despite the heavy pollution, people used to illegally grow crops at the riverâ€™s banks when water levels fell. â€œThe flood plain of the Yamuna and the other spaces that are along other drains are often farmed illegally in poisonous soil, irrigated with sewage water, and vegetables washed with sewage water, so itâ€™s a real health issue.â€ says Alday. â€œWhat we saw was an extraordinary potential of transformation. Water quality will improve when the relation between the city and the river has been restored.â€, he adds. The waterway is now hidden by massive slums and most of the population of Delhi cannot recall having seen the river during the last 10-20 years.
The clean-up project
The Yamuna River Project aims to transform the river into a place that residents will enjoy spending time on. The plan will include cleaning the river, developing the river bank as a biodiversity zone, treating drain water and using spaces on the banks of drains as public spaces and it will take place in 2 phases: Phase-I of the clean Yamuna project aims to lower the pollution levels in the Najafgarh and Delhi Gate drains, while Phase-II deals with Shahdara, Barapullah and other drains.
Local government, under pressure from the National Green Tribunal to clean the river, has committed to building a sewage treatment plant and signed a 5-year agreement with the University of Virginia to collaborate in planning river restoration. â€œThere have been three Yamuna action plans costing crores. Other plans relating to sewage treatment were proposed. All these plans were in isolation and Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 crore was allocated and spent on various projects,â€ said a senior government official. â€œThe plan includes removing silt which gets accumulated near the river. Other projects will look at river flow and river-front developmentâ€¦ An ecological riverfront will also be developed across 9,000 hectares. This is being done for the first time in the world on such a large scale.â€, another official said. He also explained that â€œon both sides of the large drains, for 250m, water-oriented development will take place. We will be creating a clean water body and public space. This will lead to an automatic rise in the value of land around these drains. The idea is to notify 250m around it as commercial space. We are looking at drains in two ways â€” as sewage or interceptors and as a wetland. Cycle tracks, greenways and paths will be developed for public utilization along the drainsâ€.
Children play in the polluted Yamuna River at Kalindi Kunj, in New Delhi. A file photo.
Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma
Credit: University of Virginia