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Standing Committee on Water Resources says Water Contamination in India’s 48,969 rural habitations

Standing Committee on Water Resources says Water Contamination in India’s 48,969 rural habitations


  • GS 3 || Environment || Environment & Ecology || Pollution

Why in the news?

Water Contamination in India’s 48,969 rural habitations

Water contamination:

  • Water pollution or contamination occurs when undesired substances, such as organic, inorganic, biological, radiological, and heat, are added to or present in water, causing the water’s quality to deteriorate to the point that it is unfit for use.

Causes of Water Contamination:

  • Sewage and WasteWater: Sewage, sewage and liquid waste are dumped into lakes and rivers from homes, farm lands, and factories. Such waste products contain harmful chemicals and toxins which make the water toxic to aquatic animals and plants.
  • Industrial Waste: Industrial waste contains pollutants such as asbestos, lead, mercury and petrochemicals which are extremely harmful both to humans and to the environment. Chemical waste is pumped into lakes and rivers, using raw water to contaminate the water. E.g. Minamata Incident.
  • Dissolved Oxygen (DO): The dissolved oxygen level of water is reduced when organic and inorganic pollutants are present.
    • Water with a DO level of less than 8.0 mg/L is potentially polluted.
    • Water with a DO level of less than 4.0 mg/L is considered extremely contaminated.
    • The amount of DO in water is critical for aquatic creatures’ existence.
    • The amount of DO present in water is determined by a number of factors such as surface turbulence, photosynthetic activity, O2 consumption by organisms, and organic matter breakdown.
    • The bigger the amount of trash, the faster it decomposes and consumes oxygen, lowering the DO level of water
    • Example: Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” in areas of the Gulf south of Louisiana, where the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers discharge. A dead zone forms seasonally in the northern Gulf of Mexico when subsurface waters become depleted in dissolved oxygen and cannot support most life. The zone forms west of the Mississippi Delta over the continental shelf off Louisiana and sometimes extends off Texas. The oxygen depletion begins in late spring, increases in summer, and ends in the fall.
  • Dumping: Dumping solid waste and litter in bodies of water creates tremendous problems. Litters include aluminum, glass, plastic, Styrofoam etc. Similar objects take equal amount of time in water to degrade. They affect animals and aquatic plants.
  • Oil Pollution: Sea water gets polluted due to oil spilled from ships and tankers while traveling. The spilled oil does not dissolve in water and forms a thick sludge polluting the water.
    • Because oil is lighter than water, it forms a thin layer on the water’s surface, cutting off oxygen to floating plants and other producers.
    • Suffocation and metabolic abnormalities kill fish, shellfish, and plankton within hours of an oil spill.
  • Poisoning kills birds and sea creatures which eat dead fish and plankton.
  • Eutrophication: Eutrophication is an increased nutrient level in bodies of water. Which results in an algae blooming in the water. This also depletes the oxygen in water, which has a harmful effect on fish and other marine animals
  • Acid Rain: Acid rain is pollution of water caused by air pollution. When the acidic particles caused by air pollution in the atmosphere mix with water vapor, it results in acid rain.
  • Global Warming: There’s a rise in water temperature due to global warming. This temperature rise results in the death of aquatic plants and animals. This also leads to a bleaching of water in coral reefs.
  • Agricultural Run-Off: Groundwater quality is greatly affected by land use for agriculture and the practices followed in cultivation. Intensive crop cultivation causes fertilizer chemicals (e.g., nitrate) and pesticides to flow through the leaching process into the groundwater. Routine fertilizer and pesticide applications for livestock and the indiscriminate disposal of industrial and domestic waste.
    • Agricultural runoff contains dissolved salts, harmful metal ions, and organic compounds, as well as dissolved salts such as nitrates, phosphates, ammonia, and other minerals.
    • Fertilizers are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are essential plant nutrients.
    • Excess fertilisers can drain into the groundwater or combine with surface water, contaminating it.
    • Insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other pesticides are examples of pesticides. They contain a variety of compounds, including chlorinated hydrocarbons (CHCs, such as DDT, Endosulfan, and others), organophosphates, metallic salts, carbonates, and so on.
    • Many pesticides are non-biodegradable, and their residues can last for years.
    • Runoff from chicken farms, piggeries, and slaughterhouses, for example, reaches the water.
    • The agricultural industry is not only the world’s largest consumer of freshwater resources, with farming and animal production absorbing over 70% of the planet’s surface water supplies, but it is also a major polluter.

Impact of water contamination:

  • Effect on human health:
    • Domestic and hospital sewage include a variety of dangerous microbes, and dumping it into the water without treatment can result in an outbreak of major diseases caused by water pollution, such as typhoid, cholera, and other diseases.
    • Metals in industrial wastewaters such as lead, zinc, arsenic, copper, mercury, and cadmium harm humans and other creatures.
    • Consumption of arsenic-polluted water causes arsenic accumulation in body components such as blood, nails, and hair, resulting in skin lesions, rough skin, dry and thickened skin, and eventually skin cancer.
    • Bacterial action converts mercury molecules in wastewater to extremely poisonous methyl mercury, which can induce numbness in the limbs, lips, and tongue, hearing, blurred eyesight, and mental instability.
    • In humans, mercury pollution of water bodies produces Minamata (neurological condition).
    • Lead poisoning is caused by the presence of lead (Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues).
  • Effects on the Environment:
    • Microorganisms engaged in the biodegradation of organic substances in sewage waste deplete oxygen levels in the water, killing fish and other aquatic species.
    • Algal bloom (excessive growth of planktonic algae) occurs when huge levels of nutrients are present in water. Lakes age as a result of this.
    • In the aquatic food chain, a few hazardous chemicals, which are commonly found in industrial wastewaters, can be biologically magnified (Biomagnified). Mercury and DDT, is an example.
    • DDT at high levels disrupts calcium metabolism in birds, causing eggshell thinning and premature breakage, eventually leading to a reduction in bird populations.
  • Effects on Aquatic Ecosystem:
    • Polluted water reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO), which kills delicate creatures including plankton, mollusks, and fish.
    • Some tolerant species, such as Tubifex (annelid worm) and insect larvae, may be able to thrive in extremely polluted water with low DO levels. These species have been identified as polluted water indicator species.
    • Heavy metals, biocides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) all kill vulnerable aquatic creatures directly.

Treatment of pollution:

  • Preventing the contamination of water sources and eliminating current pollutants or the the concentration of such pollutants is very necessary so as to make them suitable for the intended usage. Any of the ways to treat wastewater are hereafter:
    • Industrial Treatment: The raw sewage is needed to be treated correctly in a water treatment plant before it can be safely released into the environment. To reduce the amount and toxicity of waste, it is passed through a number of chambers and chemical processes in water treatment plants.
  • Conversion of nitrates in gas is called Denitrification. It is an ecological approach to prevent leaching of nitrates in soil. It stops ground water from getting contaminated.
    • Ozone Wastewater Treatment: The method of treating wastewater with ozone is becoming very common. In this process an ozone generator breaks down the contaminants in water. Ozone in the water oxidizes bacteria, molds, organic matter and other contaminants.
    • Septic Tanks: Septic tanks are used instead of being handled in any plant or sewage system, to handle sewage at the site. The water is divided into solid and liquid elements and treated separately at the individual building level.

Societal failure:

  • Domestic waste and sewage is one of the major sources of household-derived river pollution.
  • Careless actions and reckless attitude towards waterways have contributed to contamination of the waterways.
  • Rampant use of fertilizers and pesticides that percolate to rivers in the region. Inability to educate farmers about the consequences of indiscriminate usage has contributed to poor river conditions.
  • Superstitions such as bathing in Ganga help to get rid of all sins and lack of attempts to eradicate such superstition has tainted rivers.
  • Inability to understand one’s duty to keep rivers clean and littering here and there, especially at tourist places, has led to dirty rivers.

Failure of governance:

  • According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s recent finding that the number of critically polluted river segments in India has risen to 351 from 302, 2 years ago is a reflection of the failure of governance in keeping rivers clean.
  • The data indicates that the multitude of laws implemented to control waste management and protect the quality of water is clearly not effective.
  • Bribery, ineffective law enforcement and bureaucracy failure can be attributed to the failure of many national programs run by the Center for River Conservation, Wetland Preservation, and Water Quality Monitoring.
  • Government has failed to halt industries discharged from such industrial waste. Inspections, lack of discipline, allow them to start dumping in the rivers.
  • Low priority accorded to enforcement of laws by the SPCBs and Pollution Control Committees. This has led to inefficiencies.

Steps taken by India to tackle pollution:

  • Indian government initiated the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985 to clean up the Ganga River.
  • GAP was later applied to other rivers in the Ganga basin, including all other Indian rivers.
  • Today, under what is now known as the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP), India’s flagship water pollution clean-up program, 190 cities in 20 states along 41 rivers are governed.
  • The steps taken by the Government to address the issues of water pollution include the following:-
    • Preparation by State Governments of an action plan on waste management and water quality conservation of aquatic resources;
    • Installation of online effluent monitoring system to track effluent discharges directly into the rivers and water bodies;
    • Establishment of monitoring network for water quality assessments; Action to comply with effluent standards is taken by SPCBs / PCCs to improve the water quality of the rivers;
    • Financial assistance for the installation of Common Effluent Treatment Plants for Small Scale Industrial Unit Clusters; issuance of Zero Liquid Discharge Implementation Guidelines;
    • Implementation of the National Lake Conservation Plan (NLCP) and the National Wetland Conservation Program (NWCP) to protect and maintain identified lakes and wetlands in the country combined in an integrated National Plan scheme for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA) to undertake various conservation activities including interception, diversion and treatment of wastewater, pollution abatement, lake beautification, biodiversity conservation, education and awareness creation, community participation etc.
  • The CPCB has categorized all water bodies in the country, including coastal waters, according to their “approved best uses,” in consultation with the appropriate State Pollution Control Boards:
    • Before releasing sewage water and industrial effluents into bodies of water, they must be treated. Before being released from power plants, hot water needs be cooled.
    • Use of fertilisers and insecticides in excess should be avoided. Chemical fertilisers can be replaced by organic farming and the efficient use of animal waste as fertilisers.
    • Water hyacinth (an aquatic weed and an invasive plant) can purify water by removing harmful compounds and heavy metals.

World efforts to control Marine Pollution:

  • Convention on the Dumping of Wastes at Sea/London Convention-
    • “The polluter should, in principle, incur the cost of pollution,” the Protocol adds.
    • The Secretariat is managed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  • The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea-
    • UNCLOS establishes general obligations for protecting the marine environment and scientific research on the high seas.
    • An innovative legal regime for controlling mineral resource exploitation in deep seabed areas beyond national jurisdiction, through an International Seabed Authority. UNCLOS also has the power to hold states liable for damage caused by violations of their international obligations to combat pollution of the seas.
  • Marpol Convention/ International Convention for the Prevention of Water Pollution from Ships-
    • In reaction to the high number of tanker accidents in 1976-1977, this law was enacted.
    • The Convention contains provisions aimed at avoiding and minimizing water pollution caused by ships, including both accidental and routine pollution.

Situation of World Rivers and other sites

  • Many sites with unsafe levels of the drugs contained more than one antibiotic.
  • Thames:High levels of Ciprofloxacin (treats infection of the skin and urinary tract).
  • Danube:High levels of Clarithromycin (used to treat respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis).
  • Bangladesh: Very high level of Metronidazole(used to treat vaginal infections).
  • The most commonly found one was Trimethoprim (used to treat urinary-tract infections).

Case study: Ralegan Siddhi

  • The Gandhian approach to people’s participation in watershed management has been a success.
  • Emergence of local leadership, underpinning of moral sanctions for all, voluntary moral codes e.g. ban on uncontrolled grazing and tree cutting, GO/NGO partnership, involvement of all sections of society, holistic and sustained development over long time use of simple, appropriate but efficient technology for watershed management are the major factors responsible for successful people’s participation in watershed management at the Ralegan Siddhi village.
  • The main flaw in this form of citizen participation in watershed management that has been identified is that it is led by a strong and highly motivated local leader, as is the case with most Gandhian development schemes. It remains to be seen whether it can be replicated when tried on the 300 designated counties.


Measures are urgently required to revive the many dying rivers in India, protect their agriculture and prevent polluted water from severely harming public health. Sustained pressure on governments from civil society is essential to ensure this is achieved in a time-limited manner. India is already threatened by a water crisis. State and community ought to be taking a constructive role.

Mains oriented question:

“Polluted rivers and disturbance of ecosystem of the river in India reflect the failure of society and governance at local and national level.” Comment.