Living rivers, dying rivers: Everything you wanted to know about rivers in India

Why are our rivers getting sicker day by day? Can they be restored and revived? This series of talks, which also includes video footage discusses this essential aspect.
13 Feb 2013
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Rivers: A crucial debate surrounding the alarming increase in environmental degradation (Source: Wikipedia)
Rivers: A crucial debate surrounding the alarming increase in environmental degradation (Source: Wikipedia)

In an attempt to join crucial debates surrounding the alarming increase in environmental degradation, especially of rivers and river systems, Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer, India’s foremost expert in the field conceived and carried forward a series of talks titled ‘Living Rivers, Dying Rivers’ with support of India International Centre.

India's rivers--some sick or dying, some living and healthy, and others showing early signs of sickness--were taken up for presentations and discussion. An attempt was made by river conservation experts to understand what has gone wrong in many cases, what has gone right in some and importantly, what needs to be done to revive and restore dying or sick rivers. The lectures highlight the complex challenges faced by the rivers which on the one hand are worshipped as divinity and on the other hand abused.

The lecture series held over a year underscored the deplorable state of many of the Indian rivers because of excessive pollution, over abstraction of river waters, destruction of the river system - the river-bed, banks and floodplains, and so on. Prof. Iyer was of the view that “underlying such abuses is a poor understanding of what constitutes a river”. The lecture series in addition dealt with the government’s highly unsound attitudes towards rivers and called for a re-examination of the approaches followed by it.

The lectures includes the following rivers:

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River: Ganges

Lecture date: June 4, 2011

Speakers:  Dr. Rama Rauta, National Women’s Organisation and Save Ganga Movement and Dr. K C Sivaramakrishnan, Centre for Policy Research


    • Utility, aesthetic and religious value of natural ecology is invaluable
    • Life-line of crores of our people


    • Must not allow development activities to deprive the masses of the various invaluable services they have been getting freely from the natural ecology of the Ganga and of the Himalaya for ages.

Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Ganga

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River: Yamuna

Lecture date: July 11, 2011 

Speakers:  Prof. Brij Gopal, Former Prof. of JNU and Manoj Misra, PEACE Institute and Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan

Challenges: On the one hand, the Yamuna is worshipped as divinity and on the other hand abused. In most places, the river is a listless morass of human, industrial and agricultural waste--literally an open sewer. The stretch in New Delhi is the worst and the city’s sewage contributes 70 percent of the pollution to the river while it has only 2 per cent of the length. 


    • Restoration of habitats, flow regimes, riparian floodplain areas, catchments
    • Prevention of pollution
    • Minimum ecological flow an utmost necessity
    • River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification that declares 100 year return floodplains as ‘eco-sensitive zone’, and prohibits the raising of any structure of commercial, residential and industrial nature
    • Need for a national river policy independent of a national water policy

Article linkLiving rivers, dying rivers: River Yamuna

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River: River systems of Bihar: Kosi and Bagmati 

Speakers: Dr. Dinesh Mishra, Barh Mukti Abhiyaan

Lecture date: June 4, 2011


    • Embankments built all along the river systems of Bihar 
    • Flooding and silting of the right bank of the Bagmati
    • Regular breaching of embankments

Recommendations:  Caution while trying to control and tamper with natural features

 Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: River systems of Bihar

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River: Rivers of Northeast India

Lecture date: September 23, 2011

Speakers: Dr. Chandan Mahanta, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati


    • Brahmaputra river is the highest sediment load carrying river in the world
    • Reduction of channel capacity resulting in catastrophic flooding
    • River is prone to channel migration 
    • Water quality issues
    • Increased snow melt, resulting in greater incidence of flooding in rivers


    • Flood management and not just flood mitigation 
    • Integrated inter-institutional R&D support
    • Need of a renewed policy of Integrated Water Resource Management 

 Article linkLiving rivers, dying rivers: Rivers of North-East India

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River: Bagmati river, Nepal  

Lecture date: November 18, 2011

Speakers: Dr. Ajaya Dixit, Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal and Dr. Dipak Gyawali, former Minister of Water Resources of Nepal


    • River has been canalised
    • Used as a dumping ground for the city’s garbage 
    • Upstream water diversion for drinking water needs
    • River jacketing for roads and commercial activities
    • Sand mining and physical encroachment


    • Multiple approaches are required to tackle problems
    • Industry must move towards the goal of zero effluent and zero net water budget
    • Need to change the character of the chemical intensive green revolution led agriculture
    • Need extensive decentralised sewage treatment instead of huge centralised STPs
    • Lay interceptor sewers so that the sewage does not end up in the river

 Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Bagmati river in Nepal

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River: Rivers in the Western Ghats

Lecture date: November 25, 2011

Speakers: Parineeta Dandekar, South Asia Network on Dams River and People and Pandurang Hegde, Environmentalist, Appiko Movement


    • Anthropogenic threats like deforestation of catchments, sand mining, dam construction etc.
    • Diversion of water for irrigation
    • Release of untreated pollutants in the rivers

Viable solutions:  

    • Need to address the linkages of catchment area, river and sea in river basin planning 

 Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Rivers in the Western Ghats

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River: Rivers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala

Lecture date: December 7, 2011

Speakers: Prof. S Janakarajan, Madras Institute of Development Studies and Dr. A Latha, River Research Centre


    • New water supplies leading to competition for scarce resources
    • Water pollution
    • Excessive groundwater use for agriculture
    • Catchment deforestation, habitat fragmentation, dams and diversions
    • Sand mining, incorrect land use & encroachments 


    • Eco-restoration of catchments and protection of sources should be done
    • Reservoir operations management strategies for dammed and regulated rivers for improving flows to be implemented
    • Need for sand audit based regulation and sand mining ‘holidays’ to be declared in heavily mined stretches
    • River bank protection (vegetative)
    • Decentralised water management options in place of river dependent centralised options 
    • Need to ensure minimum and acceptable water quality
    • Policy changes integrating ecosystem needs and services should be incorporated into planning
    • Policy support and enforcement to ensure flow regime and e-flows implementation 
    • Dam decommissioning for dams like Mullaperiyar 

 Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Rivers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala 

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River: Vrishabhavathi-Arkavathi 

Lecture date: January 28, 2012 

Speakers: Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao, Environment Support Group


    • Anthropogenic threats like mining in catchments, dam construction and waste disposal into rivers
    • Tributaries heavily polluted in the Bangalore region
    • Environmental problems arising from massive thermal power plant in Kabini

Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Stuffed rivers of Vrishabhavathi-Arkavathi from the Cauvery system 

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River: Rivers of Gujarat

Lecture date: February 29, 2012 

Speakers: Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP


    • Excessive groundwater use, leading to increasing salinity ingression in its coastal areas
    • Poor management of existing large dams
    • Interlinking of rivers proposal
    • River pollution

Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Rivers of Gujarat 

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River: Godavari

Lecture date: March 23, 2012

Speakers: Dr. R Uma Maheshwari, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies

Synopsis: 'Perceptions of a river, life and the idea of floods in politics and commerce', with the metaphor of control over rivers dating back to the times of Sir Arthur Cotton, who built the Dowlaiswaram anicut on the Godavari in 1863 were discussed. 

Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: River Godavari

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River: Rivers of West Bengal, Orissa and the Indus system

Speakers: Dr. Kalyan Rudra, Chairman, West Bengal Pollution Control Board; Ranjan K Panda, Combat Climate Change Network and Prof. Shakil Romshoo, Kashmir University


    • Parallel embankments along the rivers
    • Ecological deterioration of basins


    • Thoroughly researching and understanding the problems for working out alternative and befitting solutions
    • Understand the processes leading to the ecological changes
    • Selective dredging of stretches of the old channels 
    • Less intrusive, more effective methods of river management

 Article link: Living rivers, dying rivers: Rivers of West Bengal, Orissa & Indus system 

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The lectures in the complete series can be viewed here:

India Water Portal is grateful to Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer and the India International Centre for allowing it to record the lecture and share the videos online. 

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