Making Yamuna Flow Again

 Manoj Misra

It is no secret that the master key to Yamuna rejuvenation or for that matter any other perennial river is to make it flow as close to its natural flow pattern as possible. How to go about it is no rocket science but is no easy task either for we humans have burdened them with so many of our selfish stakes.

What flows in a river is not just water, but water enriched with energy, minerals, sediments, detritus and life, macro and microscopic plants and animals. It’s only such flow that enables and has enabled rivers over the millennia to fulfill various ecological (& social) functions like erosion and deposition of earth, meander and form floodplains, feed aquifers to replenish the ground water, host aquatic and riparian life forms, connect with the floodplain and its water bodies and complete the water cycle.

The flow as we know is not static in volume. It varies over seasons, months and in many cases even on a daily basis. This variation at different locations along its length is also a function of its ‘order’ at that point. Any river starts life as a small 1st order brook like the Yamuna at Yamunotri. Soon it is joined by other similar or bigger ones and grows into a higher order stream like 2nd, 3rd and so on. (Standard rule is that whenever any two streams of same order meet the result is a higher order stream. But lower order stream/s meeting a higher order stream does not change the order of the latter.)

For example, at Kalsi, upstream of Dehradun (Uttarakhand) Yamuna is a 4th order stream after river Tons has joined it. Later at Paonta Sahib it grows into a 5th order stream after rivers Asan, Giri and Bata have merged into it. This constitutes the initial 172 km stretch of Yamuna main-stem within its hilly founder basin. It is a tough fact of Yamuna life that even after it enters the plains at Hathnikund (Haryana) and flows another 700 km during which all the major human habitations of Delhi NCR, Mathura, Agra, Etawah etc lie close, it still remains a 5th order stream for absence of any notable tributary till river Chambal meets and elevates its order to 6th.

It then goes onto meet river Ganga (which itself is still a 5th order stream) at Prayag as a bigger order stream. This variability is part of nature as a dynamic ecological system and influences its ecological functions like flooding and sediment and nutrient transport, ability of self-cleansing, hosting of aquatic flora and fauna, meander and to form floodplains etc.

When we talk about making Yamuna flow again, we shall have to keep the above in mind.  

In short, let river Yamuna be again. But then what about all the human needs that Yamuna is currently providing for? Would they need to be forgone? Not necessarily. Let me explain with a caveat. This is about upper Yamuna till Delhi NCR (National Capital Region) although the principles enunciated here shall hold good elsewhere too.

The Principles

If Yamuna is the ‘mother’ (maiyya) then should not its children (us) look upto it for what goodies it can provide, and not act like its master and end up sucking it dry?

Flow is existential right

Natural flow in Yamuna is its existential right. Using some part of it for us (as seekers) can at best be a gift & no more. The principle is that while some water can be abstracted from a flowing river to meet essential human needs, it is unimaginable and unnatural that humans should be deciding on how much flow should remain in the river, very condescendingly termed as its E flow.  This mindset must change.

Lift not Divert

When we ‘divert’ using a barrage or a dam the ‘paused’ river loses a big part or whole of its flow, but when we ‘lift’ it is primarily water that the‘running’ river loses. The adverse impact on the river system of latter is much less than that of the former.

Keeping Rivers Alive suggests that in different seasons no more than 30% of river water can be lifted without a significant impact on its health.

Appropriate Crops

Our farming practices were always water and soil appropriate up till the colonial times and what we are practicing after. It is available water and inherent soil quality that must determine our choice of crops for the vice versa is unnatural, unsustainable and self-defeating.

Stream Standard

River stretch upstream of Delhi carries water to be used for drinking purposes in the city. So, the 220 km Yamuna stretch between Hathnikund (Haryana) and Okhla (Delhi) deserves a ‘drinking water stream standard’. This implies that no dumping of pollutants of any kind (treated or not) that can potentially compromise the water quality in it can be permitted at least in this stretch. This means that all the waste water today entering the river requires stopping or diverting away from the river.

Zero Liquid Discharge

No river has the natural abilities to cleanse industrial and inorganic pollutants like heavy metals, synthetic dyes and fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, medical waste etc. This necessitates that industries by design and law must be ZLD (Zero Liquid Discharge). Let them treat their effluents and recycle and reuse it within the industry’s premises. This must hold true of all industries that produces any kind of liquid effluent without any exception. Thankfully the pollution control authorities are now beginning to appreciate this need.

Sewage for Irrigation

Diversion and use of fresh river water for irrigation is unnecessary and a wasteful practice, while millions of litres per day of nutrient rich sewage which is gainfully utilizable to raise agricultural crops gets dumped into rivers resulting in their eutrophication due to excessive nutrients. This needs to be reversed.

Sandy floodplains

Sandy river banks are best shallow aquifers, guarantee stability to banks and host riparian plants and animals. They get saturated (Influent action) during high flows and release water to the river (effluent action) during low flows. Indiscriminate sand mining that is robbing Yamuna of its sand is amongst the worst threats faced by it today. This must be halted.

Realistic assessment of human needs

Our rivers are being bled to death to meet wasteful and inefficient urban, industrial and agricultural water needs. 

The survival need of man is not more than 5 liters per day (drinking and cooking). So, when Delhi claims 220 liters per person per day this is outlandish. Realistically our urban and rural areas should not plan for more than 100 and 50 liters per person per day respectively to meet most of our potable and non-potable needs. Anything more only goes to hide our personal wasteful lifestyles and institutional inefficiencies. This has to stop now before we face extreme water rationing and conflicts in the future. 

Natural reservoirs

Vegetated hilly catchments, wetlands, sand layer in rivers, soils and ground water aquifers are nature’s water reservoirs. These require protection and rejuvenation wherever degraded. India is basically a ground water economy and it is these natural reservoirs that alone can be relied upon in a sustainable manner. World over plans are afoot and actions in place to store water not in surface reservoirs but underground in managed aquifer recharge locations. 

Such natural reservoirs can be located and restored both in Yamuna hilly catchment and on its floodplains. These shall help augment the flow in the hilly tract and store enough water underground to meet the needs of the lean period or of a drought year, if any.

Climate Change predictions provide for enhanced precipitation in the Himalayan belt. These natural reservoirs would be ideal and natural receptors of such an eventuality.          

Now, how to put these principles in practice for making Yamuna flow again?

river yamuna imprisoned into a canal at dak pathar dehradun pic manoj misra
River Yamuna imprisoned into a canal at Dak Pathar- Dehradun
Source: Manoj Misra

Existing human stakes on upper Yamuna

Presently 6 barrages cum dams interfere with Yamuna’s flow in Upper Yamuna River Stretch (excluding those along the tributaries). These are at Dakpathar (Uttarakhand), Hathnikund (Haryana-UP), Wazirabad, ITO (Delhi), Okhla (Delhi-UP) and Gokul (UP).

While the first one at Dakpathar diverts almost the entire river into a canal for hydropower generation, which returns back to the river little upstream of Hathnikund where a dam cum barrage managed by Haryana, diverts yet again almost the entire river into the Western and Eastern Yamuna canals (WYC and EYC) meant to supply fresh river water for irrigation, industries and urban water needs till the river reaches Delhi.

In Delhi, the barrage at Wazirabad marks the lean-season end of the river as it ceases to flow downstream. Whence it is city’s waste toxic water that offers Delhiites the mirage called Yamuna. It is this mirage, sometimes uncharitably called the ‘sewage canal’ that everybody has been trying to ‘clean’ at least since 1994, when the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) first began.

Yet, mercifully during the monsoon months when good rainfall in the hills gushes down as a series of floods it revives the river though briefly. Miraculously in April 2020, Delhiites were witness during the COVID19 lockdown to a visually appealing Yamuna. This was due to zero industrial pollutants in the river and a good flow thanks to a sudden downpour in the hills, also reduced extraction of water from the river.   

What is suggested?

While Yamuna has been diverted and dried at Hathnikund, a look at data from the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB)  informs that around 100 % of domestic water needs, 95% of Industrial water needs and 80% of irrigation needs in both Haryana and UP on west and east respectively of the river upstream of Delhi is currently met from groundwater. So groundwater remains and shall remain the water life-line of upper Yamuna region. Even Gurgaon (50%) and Ghaziabad (65%) are predominantly dependent on ground water supplies. It is only in highly urbanized Delhi that surface water supplies score over ground water sources.

Reverse the cart

Instead of today fresh water flowing in the canals and sewage cum industrial effluents in the river, let the river flow naturally and canals become the carriers of nutrient rich treated sewage from different urban centers in the region to supplement the ground water irrigation sources. Industries of course would need to necessarily become ZLD to avoid infecting with their toxic effluents either the river, the aquifers (as some industries indulge in such criminal acts, often with the full knowledge of the Pollution Control Boards) or the canals.

Aquifer mapping

Let aquifers within the Yamuna floodplains and elsewhere in the region be mapped in great details and steps be taken to develop underground reservoirs all along the river. In addition let Haryana, UP and Delhi agree on amounts of fresh water not exceeding 30% of river’s flow in any season that each can lift at pre fixed locations to meet their water needs over and above what they can meet from the ground water sources.

The Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB) shall now be required to not allocate surface water to different states but monitor the water being lifted at different locations in tune with the agreed amounts in different seasons.

This shall also require a massive effort at creation of ground water recharge structures all over the upper Yamuna basin both in UP and Haryana upstream of Delhi, as also in Delhi to ensure that ground water sources are getting adequately replenished.

NCT of Delhi

Delhi if it wishes to find a flowing Yamuna it its midst would need to take some tough but doable calls.

It must quit acting privileged on the water front and downsize significantly its water requirements per person per day from its current 220 liters. Its draft Water Policy actually recommends the same.

It must develop its floodplains into underground reservoirs and lift its fresh water needs from Yamuna as per the quota agreed with UP and Haryana and no more. Let it not forget that till 1950s it was actually lifting all its water needs from Yamuna at Wazirabad and at Okhla.

It must invest in rainwater harvesting & ground water recharge structures all over its territory in a missionary zeal and not as the usual lip service. It must also protect the local water bodies, floodplains and groundwater recharge mechanisms.

It must lead the nation in turning all its industries ZLD and in recycle and reuse of its treated sewage. No sewage (Treated or untreated) from any source, including STPs should open into the river. Only the storm water drains need supply storm period runoff into the river.

Any treated sewage over and above the city’s recycle and reuse needs must be let downstream into the Agra canal to be used for agricultural purposes. After all cities downstream of Delhi notably NOIDA, Faridabad, Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra also require a drinking water quality Yamuna that Delhi must ensure.

listless river in delhi pic manoj misra
Listless river in Delhi
Source: Manoj Misra

Pipe Dream

I am aware that there are several loose ends in this narration to realise what is proposed, including regulation and governance issues. But they all could be tied once the principles are agreed and details are sought.

Many might call the above as a pipe dream of an impractical dreamer. Maybe it seems so presently? But can we find a better one? AMEN. 

First Published at SANDRP South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People titled Making Yamuna Flow Again on November 26, 2021.

Read another piece on Air and River Pollution titled “Delhi Winters Are Now About A Frothy Yamuna And Hazardous Air” in IMPRI insights.

Read another piece on Air Pollution titled India’s Obsession With Coal And Delhi’s Air Pollution in IMPRI insights.

About the Author :

Manoj Mishra

Manoj Misra, a former forest officer is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Campaign for a Living Yamuna), a civil society consortium.

Youtube Video : #PlanetTalks | E14 | Manoj Misra | Interlinkages of River Avoidable and Flawed Concept