February 7, 2018 Yes Institute

Breathing Life Back into India’s Rivers

Author: Priyanku Sharma, Fellow – YES Global Institute

India has a rich network of rivers, with major and medium river basins spanning about 81 percent of its geographical area[1]. Yet, rampant pollution resulting from domestic, agricultural and industrial waste has turned these rivers into sewage drains, and their water unfit for use. River pollution in India has already reached the level of crisis, with the country’s most vital river systems Ganga, Indus and the Brahmaputra in the north, and Godavari, Cauvery, Krishna and Mahanadi in the south, dying a slow death. India’s largest river system, Ganga, is today considered to be the second most polluted river in the world. River pollution is disastrous not only to the human health and the country’s economy, but has also brought numerous aquatic as well as terrestrial species on the verge of extinction. Unquestionably, creating a healthier future of the country is directly linked to the health of our rivers.

Taking inspiration from global success stories

River Thames, England: England’s mighty river Thames experienced one of the most monumental success stories in river restoration history. About fifty years ago, the river was polluted to the extent that it was actually declared biologically dead, with the amount of oxygen in its water so low that no life could survive. Then the transformation began to happen with the government launching a restoration campaign banning factories from dumping pollutants into the water and installing water treatment plants all along its course. The river began to recover over time and is regarded today as one of the cleanest rivers in the world flowing through a major city. This resurgence has even won the project the prestigious ‘International Thiess River Prize’ in 2010, and a prize money of £218,000.[2]

River Seine, France: Once crowded with salmon and other species of fishes, toxins from industries, domestic and farming wiped out most fish from the river Seine at the turn of the 20th century. After nearly 15 years of stringent measures to purify the river water, salmon has come back along with 31 other species. Scientists consider Salmon as a bioindicator as its presence provides a fair indication of water pollution levels.[3]

The Indian Scenario

With some of the most densely populated geographical areas of the world being located along India’s river basins, the magnitude and multitude of complexities in developing sustainable solutions, are very different in the Indian context. Government of India, in partnership with several state governments has given a concerted push to conserve and rejuvenate India’s rivers through several promising initiatives – including creation of adequate infrastructure for the purpose, river surface cleaning, rural sanitation and other interventions. In his Budget speech for FY 2018-19, the Union Finance Minister informed the nation that 47 out of the total of 187 projects sanctioned at a cost of INR 16,713 crore under the multi-phased “Namami Gange” programme, have been completed, while the remaining projects are at various stages of execution.  [4] Further, Government’s push to raise the profile of India’s rivers adds a psychological fillip at river protection. But, in spite of these noteworthy developments, initiatives to overcome the multifaceted challenges in protecting and rejuvenating all our rivers have a long way to go before they attain desired success.

A holistic approach, competency, innovation and resilience

Successful rejuvenation of rivers necessitates a holistic approach featuring realistic timeframes with periodic targets, efficient project management, competency at the grassroots level as well as real-time monitoring and audit. Firstly, the infrastructure for river restoration need to be strengthened. Cities and towns, being the primary custodians of infrastructure assets such as sewerage networks, sewage treatment plants and riverfront development schemes, need to be strengthened and managed adequately.

Secondly, complex and dynamic projects such as river-restoration, need to have a continuous flow of funds to take care of the capital as well as the operational expenses.

Thirdly, restoration and rejuvenation of rivers has to be participatory in nature. While litigation plays a crucial role in the success of such large-scale programs, widespread awareness programs at all levels to make people understand the threats due to river pollution and how they can participate effectively, needs to be given paramount importance.

Fourthly, adopting state-of-the-art technologies and leveraging innovative solutions pioneered by India’s technology industry, can further help these efforts bear fruits. Real-time Data, e.g. data on waste generated by cities, industries, farming and residents, plus analytics that turn this data into actionable insights, would provide a baseline to measure success and trace the pain points. This would also help injecting transparency in reporting.

Leveraging India’s emergent startup ecosystem

India’s startup ecosystem –- third largest in the world — can play a decisive role in this transformation by offering ground-breaking technologies and solutions. For instance, an Indian startup founded in 2015 has taken up the task of cleaning up floral waste generated at numerous religious sites along the Ganga. The startup collects tons of floral waste at Varanasi and Kanpur, composts this waste and turn it into products such as incense sticks and fertilizers, making profits in the process. Whereas another startup has developed a solar-powered unmanned water surface vehicle that detects, collects, and get rid of pollutants, including chemicals and floating waste. Being solar-powered, it doesn’t produce emissions while it operates.

Even foreign startups have started to jump into this bandwagon. For instance, an Israeli bio-engineering company has proposed using naturally made wetlands to help clean the river Ganga. The wetlands would clean wastewater by filtering it through a series of bypasses before the water reenters the river. Leveraging innovative ideas and solutions of such technology startups can make major contributions to India’s river restoration and rejuvenation efforts in the short to long run.


Indian rivers can certainly be restored and rejuvenated by the willpower of a billion-strong nation. It took more than 15 years to restore river Thames, Seine, Rhine and Danube in Europe. But a holistic approach featuring adequate sewage treating infrastructure along rivers, preventive and treatment measures enhanced by innovative solutions at disposal and community awareness programs can certainly enable the country leapfrog to a clean and green future. With initiatives already underway and immense opportunities in hand, India can certainly come up with her own success stories for the world to see, in line with that of river Thames.

[1] https://unstats.un.org/unsd/envaccounting/seeales/egm/LandAcctIndia.pdf
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/oct/12/river-thames-wins-conservation-prize
[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/6011066/Salmon-back-in-the-Seine-as-Paris-river-cleans-up-its-act.html
[4] Union Budget Speech 2018-19