Empowering, involving local communities crucial for reviving Yamuna: Study

A user-friendly water quality index could be created to help riverine communities take informed decisions.
To improve the participation of the riverine communities in river clean-up activities, a platform can be set up as a governance mechanism. (Image: Thommen Jose, CC BY-SA 4.0)
To improve the participation of the riverine communities in river clean-up activities, a platform can be set up as a governance mechanism. (Image: Thommen Jose, CC BY-SA 4.0)

There aren’t many studies on understanding the socio-economic impact of river pollution, and the handful of those available miss out on capturing the voices of the local communities who are most affected by river pollution. Keeping this in mind, the Tata Centre for Development (TCD) at UChicago undertook a focused social study with the riverine communities of the Yamuna in Delhi, which contributes to nearly 76 per cent of the pollution load in the river.

The study ‘River Yamuna: Deteriorating Water Quality & its Socio-economic Impact: Voices from the ground’ explores ideas that riverine communities express about the Yamuna, its pollution, and impact on their livelihood and health. It focuses on two ethnographic themes: their perception of the divine quality of the river and causes as well as impacts of environmental degradation, and their perception of the impact of this pollution on their health and livelihood, and scope of intervention in river-related decision-making.

The report, a joint effort of the Water-to-Cloud (W2C) team and the TCD at UChicago, also includes insights on water quality based on rigorous lab analysis and sensor-based measurements. This helped correlate the data to the socio-economic conditions, seasonal pollution and water quality-related perceptions of the riverine communities.

The study was done in about 9 km of the Yamuna’s upper urban stretch in Delhi from Wazirabad barrage to iron bridge. The study was conducted from February to April 2019 with a sample size of 90, using a survey questionnaire, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions.

The first part of the study assesses river water quality by analysing quantitative data collected from the W2C project. The second part assesses the impact of river water quality on livelihood and health of riverine communities: boatmen, fishermen, washer folks, divers, priests and farmers. 49 per cent of the survey households subsist on less than Rs. 10,000 per month and 17 per cent survive on less than Rs. 5,000 per month.

Most respondents were aware of the negative health impacts of polluted water, but only three out of 10 believed that Yamuna pollution could have such an impact. This discrepancy possibly stems from the belief in the divinity of the river Yamuna for the majority of respondents. Moreover, about half of those who believe that the river has divine quality stated that religious rituals, on the whole, have decreased over the years due to waning of faith and/or increasing pollution.

Impact of urbanisation

Throughout the study area, wastewater drains were identified as a major source of river pollution. A majority of respondents believed that the river had become more polluted. While some said water quality improved in the monsoons, some found summers as the worst season for river water quality.

In 10 years (2008 -2018), the number of drains in the study area increased from eight to eleven and land use and land cover pattern have changed. The pressure of urbanisation on the Yamuna can be seen in terms of increased urban built-up area. This has resulted in more wastewater drains discharging into the Yamuna.

The river’s water body (coverage area in terms of width) shrunk by 24.4 per cent from 18.05 sq. km to 14.50 sq. km in those 10 years. The built-up area has expanded by 6.62 per cent. The green area around the riverbed has decreased by 54.27 per cent, whereas the bare land has increased by 50.4 per cent.

Water quality

Throughout the study period, average dissolved oxygen (mean value) was below 3 ppm, which is much lower than the CPCB standard limits for outdoor bathing (more than 5 ppm) and survival of aquatic life (more than 4 ppm). In the entire urban stretch of river Yamuna—Signature Bridge to Okhla Bird Sanctuary—a complete violation of BOD & COD standards was observed. Water quality is not up to the CPCB standards for outdoor bathing.

Map showing different segments of River Yamuna in the urban stretch (Delhi): Wazirabad Barrage to Okhla Barrage


COD values are higher than BOD in all the five segments, indicating relatively higher chemical than organic pollution load. Even though most of the drains are under the category of domestic wastewater drains, they still seem to carry higher chemical/inorganic pollution. Example: Chandni Chowk drain, which not only carries domestic wastewater, but also the market wastewater, which might have various non-point sources of harmful chemicals from different segments of the area.

Though, throughout the river, COD levels recorded mostly under the permissible limit of 250 mg/l, while BOD more frequently violates the standard limits prescribed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC)’s effluent discharge standards.

Plot showing different COD values throughout the five segments of the River Yamuna in Delhi (April 2018-October 2019)

Plot showing different BOD values throughout the five segments of the River Yamuna in Delhi (April 2018-October 2019)


Status of WASH and sewerage facility

Forty-two per cent of respondents and their households were dependent on community latrines and 26 per cent of them practised open defecation, mostly in the Majnu Ka Tila area. A little less than a third of respondents (31 per cent) had access to individual household latrines. Out of the 90 people interviewed, only 32 per cent said that they had a sewage connection.

Impact of pollution on livelihood

The point at which the 10-m-wide Najafgarh drain, a storm water drains into the Yamuna, the river's colour changes into a darker shade. (Image: Nutan Maurya)

More than one-third of the respondents reported a negative impact of river pollution on their total household income. They were primarily washerfolks, fisherfolks, boatmen, priests, and swimming coaches.

The fishermen complained that their catch was reduced from what it was 10 years ago. Now they hardly get Rohu (Labeo Rohita) and mostly catch catfish and China fish (a hybrid species). These fishes have less commercial value in comparison to Rohu. During a focus group discussion, some fishermen maintained that they cannot earn enough by fishing, so other family members need to work as daily wage labour or domestic help to survive.

Community’s perception of the impact of pollution on health 

More than half (55.56 per cent) of our respondents reported some gastrointestinal diseases and diarrhoea-related problems when asked what ailments their families had suffered in the last five years.

Most of the respondents who believed in the divinity of the river were hesitant to accept that river pollution could be a cause of any kind of ailment.


To effectively clean the river Yamuna, the study recommends stopping the pollution at its source. For this, wastewater generated from household areas and industries could be treated and recycled at its generation point and recycled water could be used to meet non-potable needs such as irrigating the parks, lawns, sidewalks, green belt on the roads, etc. The study finds it necessary to have easy access to river water quality data in an intelligible form to sensitise communities on the extent of river water pollution.

A user-friendly water quality index could be created along the lines of air quality index to provide a layperson with a single number or colour to understand if the water quality is good or bad. This will help the communities take an informed decision and contribute substantially to the planning and implementation of pollution mitigation programmes.

“More often than not, the voices from the ground—from the people who are interacting with the river the most—are not adequately represented in the policy discourse. This, we believe, has to change. This will happen only when we empower the riverine communities with easy access to intelligible data on water quality and encourage them to take ownership of keeping their river clean,” said Priyank Hirani, Programme Director, Water-to-Cloud.

Riverine communities, who are still involved in traditional occupations and spend a significant amount of time interacting with the river, have rich local knowledge about the river. They should be considered one of the stakeholders and could be given preference to take part in the monitoring and implementation of river cleaning programme at the local level. In the same breath, to augment participation of these communities in river clean-up activities, a platform can be set up as a governance mechanism. It will create a conducive environment to facilitate the active participation of the riverine communities.

“During our study, we realised that these communities are fairly aware of the causes of pollution in the Yamuna and also willing to participate in restoring, monitoring and management of the river. However, they lack an agency to guide them on how to play a role in the pollution mitigation,” said Nutan Maurya, the lead author and also Research Collaborator at the Tata Centre for Development at UChicago.

To better understand the impact of river pollution on livelihood, the study recommends collecting data on the economic cost of pollution borne by these riverine communities in the form of change in income and occupation in a given period. An understanding of the economic cost of river pollution can help prioritise the need to solve the issue of river water quality. Similarly, to better understand the impact on health and socio-economic status, a study based on the concept of well-being, along the lines of a study by Russell Smyth et al (2011), has been recommended.

The report attempts to demonstrate the interwoven nature of river water quality, health and livelihood, revealing the way each aspect is related to one another. It also makes a case for more integrated governance of the river Yamuna.

Please see the full report here

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