We thought of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself. It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades and we requested them to write for Kafila.
This series is titled Dilli hai jiska naam and the links to the previous posts can be found at the end.
This is the eighth post in the series by MANOJ MISRA
The article that follows is dedicated by the author to the memory of Prof. Brij Gopal, a leading authority on Wetlands and Aquatic Systems, who passed away on the 4th of January 2021. Manoj Misra, the author of the article was keen that his tribute to Prof. Brij Gopal be placed at the head of his piece. The article, which focuses on the issues that bedevil the once mighty river Yamuna, follows the tribute.
In Memoriam – Prof. Brij Gopal (1944-2021)
Prof. Brij Gopal, a former Professor of Environmental Sciences at JNU breathed his last suddenly on 4 January 2021. An internationally renowned expert on wetlands and aquatic systems he was associated with the National Institute on Ecology (NIE). After retiring from JNU he set up in 2009 the “Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia” (CIWSA) at a small village named Peera near Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh with an objective to encourage and mentor budding researchers and to work on water related issues of Bundelkhand region.
He was amiable and yet firm. To him science and scientific facts were paramount. Having seen increasing threats to rivers and their floodplains he convinced the union Ministry of Environment & Forests to consider legal protection to them in form of a River Zone Regulation (RRZ) on the lines of CRZ. He became the key architect of the draft notification but which for largely political reasons is still to get notified.
His vast scholarship was acknowledged by ministries and courts and he was asked to help as a member on various expert committees.
To us at the India Rivers Week/Forum (IRF) and Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (YJA) he was a constant source of encouragement and advice. His passing away is an irreplaceable loss and his absence would be gravely felt.
May his soul rest in peace!
Can Delhi Experience Blue Yamuna once again? Manoj Misra
Let us ‘clean’ the river….has been the rallying call.
To see a ‘clean’ river be it Ganga or Yamuna has for decades been a fond national wish. Appropriately the apex government agency for Ganga rejuvenation has been named the ‘National Mission for “Clean” Ganga’ (NMCG).
But is it scientific?
This emphasis on ‘cleaning’ reduces a river, a natural ecosystem to a manmade canal, a pond or a well in need of physical cleaning. This is obviously unscientific and is in our view the first mis-step taken as a result of which none of our rivers have yet been ‘rejuvenated’ despite the nation spending since 1985 thousands of Crores of rupees on it. Let me explain.
A river is an ecological system. So if it is ‘sick’ then there must be ecological reasons for the same. These would include widespread denudation of vegetation in its catchment; drastic reduction in its natural flow; impeded capacity to flood in a natural way inhibiting its ability to transport sediments, nutrients and biota; loss of floodplains and the habitats that they provide; destruction or overharvest of its flora and fauna and ingress of polluting material way beyond its assimilative capacities.
So when in the early 1980s it was realized by the State that rivers in India, notably Yamuna and Ganga had gone sick and urgent steps were required to stem the rot, it unwittingly charged the central pollution control board (CPCB) to investigate and recommend. Ideally it should have been an expert body of river ecologists, morphologists, fisheries and biodiversity experts, hydro-geologists etc with mandate to unravel the causes and suggest possible remedies.
A pollution control board by its very nature is geared to assess the levels of pollution and no more. And that is exactly what it did. Ganga and Yamuna were found to be distressed with presence in them of high to very high levels of untreated sewage and industrial effluents. Recourse to pollution abatement measures namely sewerage infrastructure in offending urban and industrial centers was cited as a dire necessity. This soon got accepted as the talisman for river rejuvenation and has remained so till date.
Investigations on how and why these rivers had gone ‘anemic’ with reduced flows and lost ecological capacities to assimilate pollution were obviously beyond the CPCB’s remit.
Adding to the misfortune were examples of rivers like Thames in London (UK) and Hudson in New York (US) which were taken as role models for the cleaning of Ganga and Yamuna.
It was poorly understood that rivers Thames (346 km) and Hudson (507 km) were widely different from rivers like Ganga (2500 km) and Yamuna (1376 km) with huge variation in their respective hydrologies. So when Yamuna in Delhi was dreamt to become like Thames in London no one saw the absence of scientific logic in the said dream.
Thames in London is a tidal river and benefits daily from tidal action while Yamuna in Delhi is monsoonal and was dependent even in its healthier state on a good monsoon to see it through the year as a perennial river. So while diversion of London’s pollution away from Thames could have helped it recover, the same does not hold true for the flow-less ‘sick’ Yamuna in Delhi.
Pollution must be addressed and fixed but as a challenge of the process of urbanization and industrialization. To present it as a panacea for rivers in distress is too simplistic a solution and betrays a lack of understanding about what has really gone wrong with the ‘sick’ rivers.
A ‘rejuvenated’ river would carry ‘clean’ water in it but the converse does not hold true. This fact was lost on our planners as engineering solutions aimed at pollution control were sought and tried over the decades in both Ganga and Yamuna to address problems which were ecological in origin. The results thereof could have been nothing but disappointing.
Yamuna in Delhi
Wazirabad on the river bank is an old village in north Delhi. A slice of medieval history resides here in form of the Tomb of 14th century Saint Shah Alam. To most Delhiites the name Wazirabad is better known for a barrage here on the river and a Water Treatment Plant (WTP) that boasts of the oldest (1921) water pumping station in the city. Interestingly both the barrage and the WTP have played an integral role in making Yamuna ‘sick’ in the city. But we shall come to that a little later.
What most do not know or appreciate about Wazirabad is the fact that it is here that two of the iconic natural heritages of Delhi meet, namely the ‘river’ and the ‘ridge’.
Delhi Ridge, which is the northern most expression of the Aravalis, the oldest fold mountain chain in the world goes here underground. Its final piece of exposed rock has served the river over the millennia as an anchor around which it has received in its flow a definitive southwards direction. Unfortunately this rare piece of heritage (extreme northern point of the Aravalis) has been obscured by the high security WTP that sits over it.
British engineers in 1874 located a chunk of bed rock in an otherwise deep alluvium of Yamuna river bed and built a weir over it. This was to divert a part of the river waters into what came to be called the Agra canal. To maintain the weir and the canal a colony was raised by the ‘Old Kanal Housing & Land Authority’, ‘Okhla’ in short1. Soon a village called ‘Okhla’ grew around it.
Today Okhla is known more for its industrial estates, another barrage on the river and a bird sanctuary on the barrage’s reservoir. There is a boat club, a water treatment plant (WTP) and a sewage treatment plant (STP) too. That NOIDA (New Okhla Industrial Development Area) and later Greater NOIDA both located across the river in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) has benefited from its name is part of historical trivia.
But neither is Wazirabad the beginning nor Okhla the end of river Yamuna in Delhi as is commonly believed. This 22 km stretch of river from Wazirabad till Okhla is just the extent of urban Yamuna in the city infamous for loading the river with its highest degree of pollutants (70%) anywhere in its 1376 km long journey from Yamunotri (the origin) to Prayag (confluence with Ganga)2.
Yamuna enters Delhi from Haryana/UP near a village called Palla in north Delhi and meanders leisurely over some 26 km before it reaches Wazirabad. Downstream of Okhla it journeys another 4 km before reaching the village of Jaitpur where it exits the city again into Haryana/UP.
Thus in effect Yamuna travels in a north-south direction over some 52 km within the National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCTD). With its embanked floodplains varying in width from 800 m to 3 km it occupies a total area of 9700 ha and forms what is termed the O Zone (river zone) in the DDA’s Master Plan of Delhi (MPD).3
Geography and Hydrology of Yamuna upstream of Delhi
Yamuna in Delhi is a product of its upstream geography and hydrology. Let us try and understand that.
For a river of its size (1376 km) Yamuna has surprisingly a small founder basin (violet in the map).
Dotted lines show the Upper Yamuna River Basin
Consisting mainly of rivers Tons, Aglar, Giri, Bata and Asan it drains an area of merely 9570 sq km spread over the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. This is just 2.8% of the total Yamuna basin area of 3, 66,220 sq km.4
There are dam cum barrages that store or divert water on all major founder tributaries like Ichari barrage (1972) on river Tons, Dak Pathar barrage (1965) on river Yamuna, Asan barrage (1975) on river Asan and Jatton barrage on river Giri. If this was not enough there are plans to raise high reservoir dams within the founder basin at Renuka ji on river Giri, at Lakhwar on river Yamuna and at Kishau on river Tons. These dams and barrages affect adversely the geo-morphology as well as hydrology of the concerned rivers and ultimately of the Yamuna that reaches Delhi.
As the river cuts through the Shivaliks – the youngest of the Himalayas – to enter the plains it encounters a bottleneck at a place called Hathnikund where a dam cum barrage (HKB) has been raised in 2002. This has replaced an earlier weir from 1882 at a place called Tajewala which is 3 km downstream of Hathnikund.5 Two canals at HKB namely Western Yamuna Canal (WYC) and Eastern Yamuna Canal (EYC) divert the waters of the river leaving it flow-less for almost 10 months of the year (non monsoon period).
Normally a tributary or two would give respite to a dammed River. But Yamuna over 200 km from Hathnikund till Delhi has no tributary worth a name. Even the possibilities of base flows from the connected aquifers have got compromised over the last few decades due to extensive sand mining and indiscriminate extraction of ground water from its floodplains which empty the aquifers soonest the monsoon is over.
To add to the river’s woes it forms over this 200 km stretch an inter-state border between the states of Haryana (on west) and Uttar Pradesh (on east). The issue with a river forming an inter-state border is that no single state then takes responsibility for it while both clamour to extract as much as possible from it in terms of resources.
So Yamuna upstream of Delhi has number of issues acting against it both naturally (small founder basin and absence of tributaries) and from manmade causes like construction of dams/barrages (existing and planned); river forming an inter-state border and indiscriminate mining of sand and boulder and extraction of groundwater from its riverbed and floodplains.
Yamuna like other rivers in south Asia exhibit a wide variation in its hydrology from monsoon to non monsoon period.
Due to a small founder basin the total water availability as monthly average in the river measured during the leanest period (December – January) at the Hathnikund Barrage (HKB) has been found in some years to be as low as 1400-1500 cusec (cubic feet per second). Compare this with the monsoon (June-September) period mean monthly flows of around 20,000 cusec and one can get an idea of the vast hydrological variation.
The smallness of Yamuna’s founder basin can also be gauged from its average annual flow at the Hathnikund barrage of 10,750 MCM (Million Cubic Meter) which is less than half of 23,900 MCM of its neighboring river Ganga at a similarly placed barrage at Bhim Gauda in Haridwar.6
So the river that reached Delhi even in the best of its health was always delicately poised in terms of natural flows. This is brought out by mention in the Delhi Gazetteer (1912) that the lean season depth of river in Delhi in early 20th century was around 4 ft and the river was hence easily fordable. Why despite this the river was full of life in terms of plants and animals is that during the monsoon months it would rise to a depth of 24 ft almost 6 times its lean season. This underscores the necessity of Yamuna to flood during the monsoon months to remain healthy.
Then there were contributions to the river made by streams from within the city itself. Herein lay the crucial relationship between the ‘Ridge’ and the ‘River’.
According to Delhi Gazetteer (1912) Barahpula, Tehkhand and Bhuriya Nadi formed the southern drainage lines discharging the southern ridge runoff east into the river. Najafgarh nallah collected excess flows from the Najafgarh jheel and the monsoon and storm period runoff from the western slopes of central ridge and ran north east to the river.
Delhi’s Drainage Master Plan of 1976 listed 201 natural drainage lines in the city which together form 22 outfalls into the river. So Delhi always had contributions to make to the hydrology of the river.
Are we clear about the Blue Yamuna that we should be aspiring for in Delhi?
Akbar Allahabadi, a poet visited Delhi and wrote about it in 1913.7
Jamuna ji ke paat ko dekha (Saw the vast floodplains of Jamuna river)
Acche suthre ghat ko dekha (Saw the nice and clean steps on the river)
Sab se unche laat ko dekha (Saw the highest official in the land)
Hazrat “Duke Connaught” ko dekha (He is Hon’ble Duke of Connaught)
Evidently the poet was in Delhi to witness the Coronation parade (Delhi Durbar) of 1911 and had been suitably impressed amongst other things by the wide floodplains as well as the well kept ghats (steps leading upto the river waters) of river Yamuna (aka Jamuna).
The Delhi Gazetteer (1912) mentions ample presence of fishes, turtles and crocodiles in the river. To quote:
“Of these the bachwa, the rohu the chilwa and the tengra are the best table fish…”
“the best known fishing ground is at Okhla where the weir ensures deep water and the collection of food.”
“The entire river is infested with crocodiles both the gharial (and fish eating variety) and the magar (a blunt nosed variety): the former are the more common.”
The late RV Smith, the famous chronicler of Delhi recounts8 that:
“The year was 1932 and the courtesans of Delhi still attracted customers from far and near, even Englishmen. Since Harrington (George Harrington, a shikari) was not the type to enjoy such company he decided to go fishing in the river.
Looking for fish on the Yamuna bank he heard the cries of a washerwoman which made the shikari hasten towards her. The hysterical women told him that a crocodile had carried away her husband as he stood knee deep in water. Harrington saw some movement in the river and some blood too. He fired with his rifle at the moving object and then with a shriek a man emerged on the surface, struggling for breath. It seems Harrington had succeeded in hitting the crocodile, which was forced to release its prey. The dobhi had lost a leg but survived”.
According to an article9 in the Statesman newspaper “Yamuna was considered a majestic river even during 1947-48, when plentiful fish could be caught in it and provided livelihood to several families of fishermen, who were generally found under the Yamuna Bridge, known as Lohe-ka-Pul, as it was made of iron in 1866 for the Calcutta-Delhi railway line”.
It is well known that till the 1950s raw municipal water was lifted directly from the river for the Okhla water works and supplied to localities in south Delhi.10
If Yamuna in Delhi was healthy in the 1940s & 50s then what happened subsequently that materially changed the situation?
India was partitioned into India and Pakistan at its Independence from the British rule on 15 August 1947. Delhi found itself at the centre of large scale transfer of refugees to and fro India and the newly created nation of Pakistan. That the city of Delhi was ill prepared for the influx is an understatement.
Large number of DPs (Displaced Persons) loosely called ‘refugees’ settled themselves in make-shift accommodations (often raised by them) in different parts of the city. One such location was on the banks of what was then an inviting stream called Najafgarh nallah which had been opened up in 1838 as an escape from the Najafgarh jheel draining finally into the river Yamuna. These refugee camps had little if any sewage disposal arrangements. Soon Najafgarh nallah would turn into conveyer of night soil and other waste material from these camps to the river.
Story of the construction of Barrage on river Yamuna at Wazirabad and the worsening of river’s health
- Vishwanathan writing in 1956 notes10:
‘Portion of this nallah (Najafgarh) from Tehar downwards receives sewage and sullage from the colonies located on either side of the nallah which have come into existence since 1947 for housing displaced persons. It is seen that no proper sanitary arrangements have been made in these colonies. The result is that large quantities of raw sewage are discharged into the nallah every day’.
‘About 16 colonies with a population of 2 lakhs were discharging their raw sewage into the Najafgarh nallah that opened into Yamuna just 700 ft downstream of the intake point at Wazirabad’.
Conditions were ripe for a health calamity to strike the city and unfold it did beginning the month of November 1955.
“An explosive epidemic of infectious hepatitis (Jaundice) occurred in Delhi in the month of December 1955 and January 1956 lasting for a period of about six weeks. Practically all the areas in Delhi were affected though the incidence showed considerable variation corresponding to the sources of drinking water supply to the different areas. According to an estimate around 68% of the population of Delhi (pop in 1955 was estimated at 1786000) got infected and some 90 persons died”. 10
Epidemiological and other evidence pointed towards infection being carried by the city water supply.
“The contamination with sewage carried by the Najafgarh Nallah occurred at the Wazirabad water works in a progressively increasing manner from the 4th to the 17th November 1955”.
It was recommended that “the prevention of sewage contamination of drinking water supply is the only sure way of avoiding recurrence of such explosive water borne epidemics of viral infections such as viral hepatitis”.
This fateful incidence of jaundice outbreak in Delhi sealed the fate of the river in Delhi with a barrage constructed over it in 1957 to separate the waters of the river from that brought to it by the Najafgarh nallah.
Rather than fix the problems of pollution in the Najafgarh nallah or shift further upstream the water intake point for the Wazirabad water works, it was found more prudent to construct a barrage and to terminate the river there for all practical purposes.
Once the barrage was in place, there was rapid decline in the health of what remained of the river downstream from absence of any dilution waters to increasing pollution ingress. Having secured the safety of drinking water supplies to the city there was no longer any sense of urgency within the official class to fix the issues with the Najafgarh nallah which continued to degrade the river. Even today after 60 years it remains the foremost challenge for the city managers. Health of the river Yamuna in Delhi has since gone downhill without a respite no matter what.
Strangely whenever the ills facing river Yamuna in Delhi are discussed there is never a mention of the role played by the barrage on it at Wazirabad?
Another ill effect of the barrage has been that its model was later adopted for the construction of ‘pseudo bridges’ over the river in the city which are in effect barrages minus the gates.
Pseudo Bridge on a river is one where the bridge portion is over only the lean season channel of the river and the rest is an embankment cum approach road laid across the direction of flow. This while inhibiting the free flow of flood waters has also frozen the river’s meander in the city.
Far worse these pseudo bridges on the river became in due course the basis of invasion of the floodplains of the river in the name of ‘development’. But that is another story!
So what would it take if Delhi wishes to regain its Yamuna of 1940s & 50s?
Simple answer is to ensure the restoration of the ‘physicality’ and ‘hydrology’ of the river as it existed then.
But that is easier said than done for a number of changes both reversible and irreversible have taken place in the river since then. So it might be good to first enumerate them and then to weigh our options.
Comparison between River Yamuna of 1940s and 2020 both upstream and within Delhi:
Natural and Continuous Flow
By 1940s the natural flow in the river had been interrupted and diverted at two locations. One was as mentioned at a weir upstream of Delhi at Tajewala and the other at the Okhla weir in Delhi. Part of the river waters were diverted at Tajewala into the Western and Eastern Yamuna canals (WYC and EYC) and into the Agra canal at Okhla. The fact that the river in Delhi was still ‘alive’ in 1950s means that the river could allow some level of diversion and still remain healthy.
The key streams originating from the ridge and feeding the river in Delhi like the Najafgarh nallah, Barapula, Tehkhand Nadi etc were still functional as storm period provider of fresh water to it.
Natural flows in rivers are dependent on the health of their catchments. Whether the Yamuna catchment was healthy or not was best illustrated by the health of the springs and small rivulets called ‘gad or gadera’ uphill in the Yamuna valley. Old timers report them to be healthy in the 1940s.
Although today (2020) it is reported that a large number of those springs and small rivulets both in the Yamuna and Tons valley have either gone dry or got destroyed from causes like deforestation and rampant construction of roads and other infrastructural projects.
Also now the diversion of natural flow is seen not just in the main-stem river Yamuna but in all its tributaries. The flow situation in the river might worsen further once the planned high dams get raised in Yamuna’s founder basin. This is because they shall impound significant parts of the monsoon period flows.
At the barrage at Tajewala/Hathnikund (HKB) there has been a gradual increase in diversion capacity from 1940, 1953, 1976 till 2002 as 8000, 14000, 16000 and 25000 cusec respectively. Result is that since 2002 there is no water in the river downstream for almost 10 months.
If that be so then what is the water that is seen in the river in Delhi upstream of the Wazirabad barrage giving an impression that all is well with the river up till Wazirabad?
This is a mix of Delhi’s share of Yamuna and Sutlej waters brought to it by the Western Yamuna Canal (WYC) and put into the river near the Palla village. This gets impounded at the Wazirabad barrage and is extracted in its entirety for meeting part of the city’s water needs. It is only during monsoon or other storm periods that water over and above the city’s requirement is allowed to flow downstream.
Moreover all the storm period fresh water streams like Barahpula originating from the ridge and feeding the river have since gone bad and turned into sewage drains.
- Planned high dams at Lakhwar, Kishau and Renuka ji need to be dropped as their main justification namely supply of drinking water to Delhi holds no water. Delhi is a city which is already well provided in water terms (50 gallons per person per day as per the Delhi Jal Board) and needs no additional supplies. This step shall ensure that monsoon flows in the river do not get adversely affected and Delhi continues to receive floods in the river.
- Realistically there may not be an option to decommission in HP/UKH either the dam at Koti (Ichari) on river Tons, since it is feeding an underground power house or the one on river Asan since its reservoir has been declared as a bird sanctuary and is also now a Ramsar Site. As regards the barrage at Dak Pathar while option exists to decommission it by converting the power houses standing on its canal into solar based, but since the canal ends in the Asan reservoir it may be legally not feasible as it would affect the bird sanctuary.
- There is a crying need to rejuvenate in a participatory manner the springs and gads in the Yamuna and Tons valley through focused and scientific treatment of their catchments.
- It is at the barrage at Hathnikund (HKB) where the most attention is called for. A number of studies on Yamuna have found that no more than 50% of its natural flow at HKB should be diverted. Rest should flow in the river at all times as its environmental flow (E Flow). This translates into a minimum of 1288 cusec (36.8 cumec) during the lean flow months of December-January.6 Against the same currently a meager amount of 354 cusec (10 cumec) is reportedly allowed into the river.
While the above requirement might seem like a tall order but if river Yamuna is to be rejuvenated there can be no going back on it. Provision of E flow in Yamuna is now a legal requirement as per a 2015 NGT judgment titled “Maily se Nirmal Yamuna”.
Fortunately now there is an increasing realization that we as a nation have reached the limits of supply side management of water in form of dams and barrages and groundwater extraction and that there is an urgent need of a paradigm shift to demand side management in form of enhanced water use efficiencies in agriculture, industries and urban use and in recycle and reuse of waters extracted from our rivers and the underground. Once mainstreamed as a standard practice this would help us limit extractions from our rivers including the river Yamuna.
- The barrage at Wazirabad, which began the process of river’s demise in Delhi, can now be decommissioned. One of its purposes was to act as a road cum bridge to connect east Delhi with the west. This role post the construction of nearby Signature Bridge is now passé.
On the lines suggested before Delhi could start to lift water from the river for the WTP at Wazirabad from a location much upstream of Wazirabad.
It is hoped that post the completion of the Interceptor Sewer Project (ISP) of Delhi Jal Board (DJB) even the Najafgarh drain would no longer carry polluted waters.
- The barrage at ITO in Delhi which was created to impound water for meeting the water needs of the thermal power plant at Rajghat has already become redundant with shutting down of the said power plant. While its role as a bridge cum road remains there is no reason why its gates cannot be removed.
- Erstwhile storm water drains in Delhi should be looked upon as “mini Yamunas” and revived as such.
- Come 2024 and the 1994 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on sharing of Yamuna waters among the upper Yamuna riparian states (UK, HP, Haryana, UP, Delhi and Raj) becomes due for revision. This may be done by first making provision of E flow in the river.
This would be correcting a past mistake. Since any scheme or agreement at HKB for either water abstraction or water sharing amongst its riparian states should have taken into consideration the absence of Yamuna tributaries downstream of HKB.
The water sharing MOU of 1994 is thus a classic example of hydrological and geographical ‘blindness’ of its framers when all the extractable water in the river was distributed amongst the riparian states with a futuristic promise to leave 10 cumec as minimum flow in it. This was laughable as is brought out by a study conducted by Prof. Vikram Soni and his co-authors11:
“A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between basin states of river Yamuna for sharing of Yamuna river water sets aside a minimum flow of 10 m 3 /s throughout the year, for ecological purposes (NIH 2011). This amounts to a minimum fresh water flow in the river of 0.86 MCM/day, whereas we found that we need about 6.6 MCM/day just to avoid algal choking”.
Ability to flood
A river should necessarily be free to flood to retain its healthy status. This is because flood in a river fulfills several of its fluvial functions including wetting of floodplains, recharge of ground water, providing suitable habitat conditions to fishes and other aquatic life, giving life to riparian vegetation and floodplain wetlands. Above everything it is during floods that a river is able to transport sediments of varying dimensions down the gradient right upto its delta.
Unfortunately in recent times floods in rivers have received a bad name as source of disaster. While it is due to man’s interference through construction of dams, barrages, embankments and encroachments into floodplains that result in some rivers losing their way during high floods.
Till the 1940s & 50s the river Yamuna was free to flood as the two structures standing in its path namely the weirs at Tajewala and at Okhla were no hindrance to the flood waters. There were hardly any embankments on river banks upstream of Delhi and within Delhi the embankments on the east bank from Old railway cum road bridge (Lohe-ka-pul) till Chilla regulator on Hindon cut (canal) was low enough to allow high flood waters to spread gradually over it into its extended flood plains in East Delhi.
We have seen how floods in Yamuna in Delhi kept the river healthy despite low flows during the lean season.
Old timers (Personal communications with Jagwat Swarup, a Yamuna khadar farmer) recall that the river in Delhi used to flood annually till the 1940s and 50s. This ceased with the construction of the barrage at Wazirabad inhibiting the free flow of even the low level floods which by bringing fresh silt were beneficial for the farmers.
In 2020 the flood in Yamuna is hardly a natural phenomenon as the river is no longer free. This is true both in its founder basin in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and later in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and in Delhi.
The barrage at Hathnikund acts as a dam and regulates the release of flood waters into the river.
Embanking of the river both in Haryana and UP does not permit easy and gradual spread of flood waters and common experience is that once the flow of water in the river exceeds 3-4 lakh cusecs the chances of break in embankment and unregulated spread of water into fields and villages increases. This was experienced in 2010 when a breach in embankment at the Pathalgad village in Haryana resulted in widespread flooding of fields and villages. (Information collected in person)
- The planned high dams at Renuka ji, Lakhwar and Kishau in the founder basin (HP/UKH) needs to be dropped. These dams with reservoirs designed to store monsoon waters shall alter significantly the ability of river Yamuna to flood naturally during the monsoons.
With them in place even the annual revival that the river experiences during monsoon in Delhi shall cease and the river’s ability to recharge ground water in Delhi shall get further compromised.
- Decommissioning of the barrages at Wazirabad and at ITO shall improve the river’s ability to flood naturally in Delhi. It shall have a dramatic impact on the recharge of groundwater in the city and help the river create conditions for a return of its original plants and animals, especially the fishes.
- Flood plains of the river in Delhi need to be secured against further encroachments by giving them a legal status like a Sanctuary or a Conservation Reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act or by its declaration as an Eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act. Similarly the floodplains of storm water drains within Delhi ‘the little Yamunas’ require attention and recovery from encroachments and degradation.
Ability to host life
The Delhi Gazetteer and old timers inform that the river in the city in 1940s had ample aquatic and riparian life. It was best exemplified by the presence of fishes of various kinds, turtles as well as crocodiles.
Today in 2020 except for seasonal bird life in and around Okhla bird park and welcome restoration of floodplain and it’s biota at the 457 acres Yamuna Biodiversity Park in north Delhi the river for all practical purposes is ‘dead’ as both its water and its floodplains are in no condition – due to lack of flow, high pollution levels and incompatible land use changes – to support life.
- The NGT judgment in OA No 6 of 2012 and 300 of 2013 popularly called ‘Maily se Nirmal Yamuna’ has set a clear road map for the restoration of the quantity and quality of water and the floodplains of the river. A two member monitoring committee called the Yamuna Monitoring Committee (YMC) is busy overseeing its implementation under the guidance of the NGT.
- For return of life in the river it is as much necessary to have continuity upstream of Delhi as downstream of it. It is the barrage at Okhla that has broken the river’s continuity downstream of Delhi. But its retention is necessary to not only divert water into the Agra canal but also because a Bird Sanctuary stands on it. A redesigning of the barrage to enable fish passage upstream would thus be helpful. Release of E flow at Okhla is also necessary for the restoration of the river and of its full complement of biodiversity downstream.
Too many cooks spoil the broth. The situation of Yamuna in Delhi is no different. There are too many government agencies with a foot in the river. Unless a single agency empowered with authority and man and materials is identified or created and made responsible for Yamuna as well as the Storm water drains (the mini Yamunas) in the city the hope of rejuvenation of the river might remain no more than a pipe dream.
Let me rather uncharacteristically end with few Q&A
Qs1. Can Delhi rejuvenate Yamuna?
Obviously it cannot, on its own……If it were possible then it would have happened long back.
Qs2. Can Delhi have a rejuvenated Yamuna?
Yes, of course. It just had a semblance of it during COVID19 lockdown in the month of March-April 2020.
Qs3. So what exactly are the lessons from March-April 2020 for the river Yamuna in Delhi?
Once all polluting industries become Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD), ample natural flow in the river can do the trick.
Qs4. Is a ‘clean’ Yamuna also a ‘rejuvenated’ Yamuna?
Of course not, although vice versa is true.
Qs5. What would a rejuvenated Yamuna in Delhi look like?
- It is free flowing and free flooding
- A coin dropped into it could be easily seen on the riverbed. This is old timer’s definition of a healthy river.
- Fishes of the yore (Mahseer, Rohu, Bechwa etc) are back in the river. Notice boards warning against possible attacks from crocodiles are seen at vulnerable points in the floodplains.
- Its water is good enough to be lifted yet again from the original intake point at Okhla for municipal supplies.
- Swimming races in the river are again a regular feature.
- Watermelon, musk melon and other cucurbits grown in the Yamuna floodplains are again much in demand.
Qs6. Can we identify the defining moment of Yamuna’s fall from grace in Delhi?
Yes, the construction in 1957 of the barrage at Wazirabad.
Qs7. When did Yamuna in Delhi begin to show signs of sickness?
The degradation began in the 1960s after the construction of the barrage at Wazirabad. By late 1970s the river had gone comatose.
Qs8. Why were the first few Dillis away from the riverbank?
River was not a source of water. It was tempestuous and hence best loved from a distance…
Qs9. Why did Yamuna Action Plans (YAPs) not succeed?
Exclusive focus on sewage treatment without addressing the flow question in the river has been the fatal mistake.
According to a study4:
“Considering the current status of generation and treatment capacity of Delhi alone, even if treated effluent quality is achieved at 10 mg/l BOD for the entire existing treatment capacity, still BOD load would be 179 t/d which may result in BOD concentration of 46 mg/l in the final effluent and not comply with the prescribed standards. Even if the entire sewage of Delhi is treated to a level of 5 mg/l of BOD, still the BOD load in the final effluent would be 19.4 t/d, which may continue to impair the water quality of the river”.
In short, even the best of STPs without dilution flow cannot improve the water quality in the river.
Qs10. Is there a probable time frame in which Delhiites could hope to see a healthy river?
Depends on how far and quickly the directions of ‘Maily se Nirmal Yamuna’ judgment of NGT from 2015 get implemented.
Under the best of circumstances 2030 is when river could hope to start recovering. With sustained efforts a truly rejuvenated river could then be in place by 2050.
In a worst case scenario……..even 2100 looks uncertain.
Qs11. Shall Delhi survive, if Yamuna doesn’t?
Well, perhaps it could but as a very ‘sick’ city……….God forbid.
- Yadav & V. Khandegar. 2019. Dataset on assessment of River Yamuna, Delhi, India using indexing approach. Data in Brief 22 (2019) 1–10. Elsevier.
- S.Panwar. 2009. Reviving River Yamuna. An Actionable Blue Print for a Blue River. PEACE Institute Charitable Trust. Delhi
- 2010. On the Brink: Water Governance in the Yamuna River Basin in Haryana. Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development & PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, New Delhi
- Upadhyay and R. K. Rai. 2013. Water Management and Public Participation, SpringerBriefs in Earth Sciences, DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-5709-7_2
- Vishwanathan. 1956. https://ijmr.icmr.org.in/ijmr/supplement/Infectious%20Hepatitis%20in%20Delhi(1955-56).pdf
Manoj Misra, a former forest officer is the Convener since 2007 of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Living Yamuna Campaign), a consortium of NGOs & individuals working for the rejuvenation of river Yamuna as an ecosystem
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