The Fabled Yamuna Has Become A River of Waste

by Hardly Waite

New Delhi can neither quench its thirst, nor adequately get rid of the ever bigger heaps of sewage that it produces. Some 45 percent of the population is not connected to the public sewerage system.

 Nationwide, more than 700 million Indians, or roughly two-thirds of the population, do not have adequate sanitation. Largely for lack of clean water, 2.1 million children under the age of 5 die each year, according to the United Nations.–Somini Sengupta.


The fabled Yamuna River, on whose banks the city of New Delhi was born more than 2,000 years ago, is a case study in the water management crisis confronting India. It is also a cautionary tale about what can happen to overburdened rivers.

In Hindu mythology, the Yamuna is considered to be a river that fell from heaven to earth. Today it is still worshiped, but it is a disaster. From its the bridges,  the faithful toss coins and sweets, lovingly wrapped in plastic. They scatter the ashes of their dead. But in New Delhi, the Yamuna is clinically dead.

Yamuna River at New Delhi

As the Yamuna enters the capital, still relatively clean from its 246-mile descent from atop the Himalayas, the city’s public water agency extracts 229 million gallons every day from the river, its largest single source of drinking water.

As the Yamuna leaves the city, it becomes the principal drain for New Delhi’s waste. Residents pour 950 million gallons of sewage into the river each day.

In its trip thorough New Delhi,  the river becomes a noxious black thread of raw sewage, assorted trash and methane gas– hardly safe for fish, let alone bathing or drinking. The  level of fecal coliform  in the Yamuna was 100,000 times the safe limit for bathing.

In 1992, a retired Indian Navy officer who once sailed regattas on the Yamuna took his government to the Supreme Court. The retired officer, Sureshwar D. Sinha, charged that the state had killed the Yamuna and violated his constitutional right, as a practicing Hindu, to perform ritual baths in the river.

In 1992, as a result of a civil suit,  the Supreme Court ordered the city’s water authority to treat all sewage flowing into the river and improve water quality.  That command is still unmet.

New Delhi’s population, now 16 million and rapidly expanding, continues to dump sewage into the river, more than half of it untreated. Sewage lines are badly clogged and power failures leave them inoperable for hours at a time.

The quantity of sewage keeps increasing and the will to address the problem is lacking.

Some areas of the city are not even connected to sewage lines.  Open sewers put out unimaginable stench in slum areas.  Cl0gged canals are havens for malaria and dengue fever carrying mosquitoes.

Downstream cities like Mathura and Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) use the river as their main source of drinking water.  They are forced to treat the water heavily because of the poor stewardship of their upstream neighbor.

Adapted in part from an excellent New York Times article by Somini Sengupta.