Health check up for the rivers

While the health of the rivers needs to be comprehensively assessed to bring the contamination down, public participation remains crucial in keeping the rivers alive.
The Krishna river, Wai, Maharashtra. (Source: India Water Portal)
The Krishna river, Wai, Maharashtra. (Source: India Water Portal)

A severe crisis is plaguing the rivers in India. A study by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2013 has found that the number of contaminated rivers in the country has more than doubled over the past five years. This is mainly due to the deposition of untreated sewage and industrial effluents in the rivers, thus putting a strain on the riverine ecosystem and making them unhealthy.

This paper, Evolving human dimensions and the need for continuous health assessment of Indian rivers published in the journal Current Science on July 25, 2016, explains the concept of river health as an integration of physical, chemical and biological factors that maintain the structure and function of the natural ecosystem of the river. It also includes the inherent ability of a river to recover after disturbance, to support local plants, animals and human populations and to maintain key processes such as sediment transport, nutrient cycling and energy exchange.

River Health Assessment

The concept of River Health Assessment (RHA) came about as an attempt to measure the health of the river. For long, these studies have focused only on the water quality which included physicochemical properties of the water. This approach had serious drawbacks as it identified only those situations where the plant and animal life in the river were at risk, but did not provide any information about the actual damage done.

Indicators used for health assessment of rivers

RHA uses six thematic components as indicators of river health--the health of the catchment, floodplain, river channel, flow, quality and biotic health.

  • Catchment health (CH): A catchment is an area of land where water collects when it rains, often bound by hills. As the water flows over the landscape, it finds its way into the streams and to the soil, eventually feeding the river. The catchment health is assessed through factors like land use change and physical characteristics of the catchment for planning and controlling the water quality and connectivity. This indicator helps to evaluate the impact of human activities that can disturb the catchment area of the river.
  • Flood plain health (FPH): Flood plain is the area of the land near the river that experiences flooding. FPH includes assessment of the impact of vegetation on the floodplains, the characteristics of the river bank such as its stability or its susceptibility to erosion, other factors like the shape or the slope of the bank, its width and height, average run-off of the river, the impact of activities such as the use of chemicals and pesticides, mining, etc. FPH provides information about the changes and the impacts due to flood dynamics. 
  • River channel health (RCH): RCH provides information regarding the ecology and the biotic condition of the river. This includes information on the length and breadth of the river channel, the longitudinal connectivity and the impact of dams and weirs, the condition of plants and animals in the river, etc.  
  • Flow health (FH): Includes information on the kind, frequency, magnitude and duration of the river flow and the impact of water extraction structures such as tube wells and water pumps and barriers such as dams on the natural flow of the river.
  • River water quality health (QH): This is measured by assessing the water quality index of the river water.
  • Biotic health (BH): Includes indicators such as the aquatic organisms present in rivers that are affected by the changing condition of the river, the population of the flora and fauna, their habitats, linkages between the river and its catchment, the dynamics of water flow and the transport and transformation of nutrients.

Researchers emphasise that it is important to consider river health in relation to the society, economy and culture. RHA needs to be a community-driven process. Participatory river protection and rehabilitation, together with local awareness at the community level, can play a very significant role in river conservation.

What’s happening  in India?

Except for the assessment of the health of Yamuna river at Jalalpur (Allahabad) under Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, most of the RHA work has focused only on the water quality index. Although river Ganga forms the largest river basin in India, there is significant lack of information on the condition of the river. The Ganga Action Plan I (GAP I) launched in 1986 with the aim of cleaning the river included only a few aspects of RHA protocol such as the control of pollution from agricultural runoff, human defecation, cattle bathing and throwing of unburnt and half-burnt bodies into the river, conservation of the biotic (plant and animal and ecosystem) diversity of the river and rehabilitation of soft-shelled turtles to abate river pollution. In 1993, the second phase (GAP-II) programme was launched with work on four tributaries of some rivers like Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahanadi.

Studies like the one done by Das and Tamminga in 2012 have found that the two programmes had limited impact due to little public participation. The Indian government launched another clean-up programme, the National Ganga River Basin Project in 2011, with support from the World Bank. The reports of this programme point at the crucial role of stakeholders’ participation in pollution control programmes in any effort to clean, restore and regenerate the Ganga river basin.

The growing concerns about the Ganga point at the need for proper scientific health assessment of this vital source of water in India by developing a comprehensive RHA protocol, says the article. For this, river health assessment programmes need to move beyond the top-down technocratic approaches to include collaboration and public participation to help bridge the gap between science and the sacred. 

The paper ends by proposing a comprehensive model for RHA of the Ganga based on the premise that people’s relationship with the Ganga is central to any effort to restore the river’s health. The key features of the proposed RHA model need to:

  • Have a good balance of social, economic and ecological factors.
  • Include human values that are key to controlling anthropogenic activities, which when altered, can disturb the balance between the above factors.
  • Consider cultural, aesthetic and religious values as important indicators that need to be measured.
  • Presume that a balance between these three major human values can maintain socioeconomic and ecological health of the river.
  • Emphasise participatory river management involving all stakeholders for establishing river health without compromising their livelihoods, social wellbeing, culture, tradition and environment.
  • Encourage stakeholders’ participation in judicious use of water resources (agriculture, drinking, recreation, transport, industries), limited use of aquatic biodiversity (fishes, turtles, dolphins and others)
  • Create awareness on river health through capacity building initiatives