Our Living Environment: Taking Care of the Rivers



The rivers of the world are dying. They are poisoned by the most selfish of all the species, the handiwork of humankind itself. Each day tons of waste are dumped in rivers. As the waterways groan and belch under the weight of garbage and chemicals official action takes the form of lip service. Communities suffer and the planet gets closer to the day when the wheels will grind to a halt.

In June 2015 the waters of La Pasion River in Guatemala were covered with dead and poisoned fish. It was found that the river was contaminated by malathion, an agricultural insecticide that is said to be 100 times more poisonous than sewage. The community that is affected is Sayaxche where oil plantations occupy large tracts of land.

The local community has been adversely affected as a result. In what has been described as an ecological disaster many fisherman ‘ are embroiled in conflict and the La Pasion River has lost its crabs and xixi or blue fish.’ The cause for the pollution has been placed on REPSA an African oil plant that is located upriver. Poverty has hit the area and a fisherman has summarized the feeling of the community. He said, ‘ I only know how to fish. The poison that fell on the river nine months ago continues to harm us. We are all turning against each other and the fish is gone. But what’s worse, we’ve lost our dignity.’

The same can be said about the Citarum in Indonesia. This is the largest river in the country and over 30 million residents rely on the river for agriculture, domestic and personal use. But rapid industrialization has meant expansion of the textile industry. In 2014 it was estimated that over 200 textile factories were lining the banks of the Citarum. One report says that, ‘ the dyes and chemicals used in the industrial process-lead, arsenic and mercury amongst them-are churned into the water, changing its colour and lending an acrid odour.’

The Citarum is one of the most polluted rivers in the world with dead fish and a carpet of debris and junk accounting for much of its contamination. China too is a major player in the pollution of its rivers. The United Nations reported that enormous stretches of its rivers cannot be used anymore ‘either for drinking, fishing, farming or even in factories.’ The first sign of civilization in Northern China started around the Yellow River but the river has become polluted in recent years. According to the River Conservation Committee 4.3 billion tonnes of polluting effluent were tipped into the river recently.

It appears that the Yellow River in only one in a series of rivers that is being polluted in China. In 2013 Chinese farmers dumped 6,000 pig carcasses in the Huangpu River. A sample of the water found porcine circovirus that was caused by intestinal fluids, blood and other pollutants of the dead pigs and which ‘could alter the taste and color of tap water.’ By the end of 2013 the Fuhe River in China had problems of its own.

There were tons of poisoned fish in the river. This occurred as a result of the discharge of high levels of ammonia in the river by a local chemical plant. The samples indicated that the ammonia density was 196 milligrams per liter that was in excess of the national standard.

The Niger Delta is a recent newcomer to the horrors of pollution. The Delta is the biggest oil-producing region in Africa. Shell operates 5,000 kilometers of pipeline and since 2007 it is said that there were at least 1,700 oil spills. The situation in the Niger Delta is a classic case of the multinational claiming to follow the rules but is in effect flouting them. In November 2015 the Nigerian Center for Human Rights and the Environment stated that, ‘ the quality of life of people living surrounded by oil fumes, oil encrusted soil and rivers awash with crude oil is appalling, and has been for decades.’

What has been the response of Shell to the criticisms? Shell says that it has addressed the oil spills but it has not provided details. Amnesty International said in 2015 that certain areas remain ‘heavily polluted.’ It gave the example of Ogoniland where the late Ken Saro-Wiwa led a mass movement against the military in his state. Saro-Wiwa was protesting against the pollution in the state and was also calling for political independence.

The United Nations in a study concluded that, ‘ the Ogoni people live with pollution 365 days a year. Children born in Ogoniland soon sense oil pollution as the odour of hydrocarbons pervades the air day in, day out.’ In Kerala in India there is the statement that ‘a poisoned river means a dying population.’ Kerala is one of the most densely populated places in the world with a population growth rate of 14 per cent in 2010. The rivers of Kerala are said to be polluted from industrial and domestic waste. The industries discharge hazard pollutants such as ‘ phosphates, sulphides, ammonia, fluorides, heavy metals and insecticides into the downstream reaches of the river.’ The industrial belt of Eloor is described as one of the world’s toxic hot spots. A Greenpeace study shows that on an island in the Periyar river unchecked pollution has resulted in diseases like cancer, congenital birth defects, bronchitis, asthma, and stomach ulcers.

Brazil seems to have a non-policy towards its rivers. Many of them have been poisoned to accommodate the miners much to the opposition of the native Indians. In November 2015 mud and iron ore residue were found in the Rio Doce and the water became brown. The area is known for its humpback whales, dolphins and turtles. Oxygen levels were reduced by 50 cubic meters; mining waste, plant and animal life were devastated. This led Brazil’s environment minister to call the spill ‘the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.’

It is easy to think that poisoned rivers occur only in poor countries. In the United States three million gallons of water were released by the Environmental Protection Agency in the Animas River in Colorado turning it into sickly orange color. This occurred in the summer of 2015 and it was stated that the ‘ lead level of the released water was at least 12,000 higher than normal and also contained extremely high levels of beryllium, mercury, cadmium, iron, copper, zinc and arsenic.’

This pollution has affected the life of the Navajo Nation and what was disturbing was that the slick of poison traveled to a reservoir in the Colorado River and could potentially affect cities such as Las Vegas. William Rivers Pitt concludes that ‘ we are killing ourselves with chemicals, carelessness, and with greed. The greed dies hard even when the rivers have turned to soot and the tap water catches fire.’

In Europe the situation is grim as well. The New Scientist states that ‘Europe’s rivers are awash with organic chemicals that can kill or subtly damage aquatic life.’ The Upper Tiza was one of Europe’s cleanest rivers but a 40-kilometer flow of toxic cyanide ‘has wiped out the river’s entire ecosystem-everything from microbes to otters.’ It is said that in terms of complete destruction the damage was more than Chernobyl.

Any discussion of the pollution of rivers must take into account the Ganges. This river is worshipped by many Hindus as a goddess. It is exalted in movies and books for its powers of purification and absolution. There are pilgrims and other travelers that believe in the curative powers of Ganga Jal. But it is argued that Ganga Jal has been replaced by Ganda Jal, meaning that the water is impure.

Reports have described the Ganges as an environmental catastrophe. It is said that municipal waste is pumped directly in the river to become someone else’s problem downstream. Organic waste that comprises food, trash and human and animal remains comprise 80 per cent of the waste that is dumped in the Ganges. But there are also industrial pollutants that account for 15 percent of the deposits. This is particularly evident at Rishikesh where raw sewage is dumped along with hydrochloric acid.

By the time the river reaches Calcutta the water is fetid and filled with toxins and diseases. It is estimated that there are 132 factories that includes tap and die manufacturers. Sampat points out that ‘waterborne diseases such as viral hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, gastro-enteritis plague communities up and down the Ganga.’ The Ganges has nurtured the Indian civilization but the view in many circles is that while the river can take care of sins it cannot handle the pollution. The Ganges is the sewer for millions. The Modi government has earmarked the cleaning up of the Ganges as a priority project. The government will also do well to clean up the Yamuna river that is said to be dying from industrial pollution and untreated waste. The Yamuna is described as the lifeline of Delhi.

It is estimated that each year mining companies dump over 200 million tonnes of hazard waste into rivers worldwide. Polluting our rivers has to stop. Rivers give life and they need to be treated with kindness. We cannot afford to ignore the ecological damage that is occurring everyday to this precious resource.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.