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Millennium Post

Trouble brewing

With the aquatic ecosystem on verge of collapse, there is a need to develop tools for monitoring discharge of complex industrial waste into water systems

Trouble brewing

Water pollution has become a nagging agony as it has reached to alarming proportion despite spending large chunks of money in cleaning rivers including the Ganga. Today many water bodies are severely polluted and aquatic ecosystem is on the verge of collapse. To further stress the concern, we can cite the example of Bellandur Lake in Bangalore, which is on fire and has rained ash onto nearby buildings and spilt foam regularly onto the roads. The Lukha river in Meghalaya frequently turns blue with fish mortality.

Globally, freshwaters are amongst our most threatened habitats, showing some of the largest species declines and fastest rates of extinction and is the cause of public health problems. Large areas of unconstrained development, industrial and mining activities, agricultural development, change of human lifestyle, informal settlements and open landfill sites — all these activities are polluting the water bodies in such a manner that many pollutants remain unknown.

These deficiencies may be attributed to the apathy of top management to take a constructive administrative decision; mindset of scientists; political will and poor governance in environment sector to explore the dangerous chemicals causing upset of natural ecosystems and human health programs. To supplement these views, water quality monitoring which is one of the most important components of prudent water quality management, are not being done especially to demonstrate the impacts of the latent danger that lies beneath the water's surface on the aquatic environment.

In my view, based on critical analysis, the existing design of water quality monitoring network is not consistent and logical to produce reliable data of many micropollutants like pesticides, polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), pharmaceutical products, microplastics, metals from the various point and non-point sources. Point source polluters include industries, mines, municipalities, registered health care facilities and wastewater treatment facilities. Non-point sources are essentially everything else. Regulatory authorities do not monitor non-point sources, which includes agriculture among many. Residual pesticides and chemical fertilisers originating from agriculture field ultimately find their way to the rivers.

Unfortunately, the main focus of the monitoring program is to evaluate the sewage-related contaminants such as BOD, TSS, total coliform and faecal coliform despite the prevalence of many micropollutants in river water. Huge financial investments are made towards procurement of costly imported instruments (including automatic water quality monitoring instruments) but continuous monitoring and analysis of samples are being undertaken without considering the crucial role of environmental science to integrate human service demands with river ecosystem. Optimum use of these instruments and their functionality in producing reliable information on relevant contaminants are always doubtful. Regulatory authorities do not put proper emphasis on generating additional information on water quality beyond sewage-related contaminants using these costly instruments. Above all, understanding of the dynamics of hidden chemicals beneath the water surface has been impaired not just by a lack of information, but also by the complexity of issues that often transcend discipline boundaries — environmental science, health, hydrology, and economics — with each offering different insights.

Last ten years, I have made several investigations for integrated assessment taking into account the relevant pollutants in some rivers like Ganga, Damodar, Mahanadi and Brahmani, Lukha and others. These investigations revealed the presence of metals, pesticides and PAH in some rivers and many drains discharging their wastewater to the rivers. Beyond sewage-related contaminants, other water and sediment quality parameters identified in these investigations revealed the presence of micropollutants in water and sediments in danger level and that demands a broader focus on water quality. These heavy metals entering the environment may lead to bioaccumulation and bio-magnifications and are not readily degradable and get accumulated in animals as well as humans.

Presence of pesticides in Ganga is also a cause of menace because of serious and widespread ecological consequences. Systematic studies on contamination of pesticides and metals are practically lacking. According to the study carried out at the Indian Institute of Technology, the Ganges is living proof that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are almost everywhere. The river offers powerful insight into the prevalence and spread of drug-resistant infections, one of the world's most pressing public health problems. Its waters provide clues to how these pathogens find their way into our ecosystem. The researchers found that the levels were consistently low in winter and then surged during the pilgrimage season, May and June. The largely uncontrolled release of active pharmaceuticals ingredients (APIs) within untreated wastewater discharged to water bodies is of growing concern owing to potential antimicrobial resistance, endocrine disruption and potential toxicity. The current practice of limiting the assessment of chemical pollution to a few substances is not adequate for recording pollution as a whole.

Ganga — one of the most polluted rivers — is a cocktail of urban sewage, animal waste, pesticides, medicine, fertilisers and industrial metals. Despite spending Rs 4,000 crores till the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014 and further spending of many crores after the announcement of Rs 20,000 crores in 2014, many stones are still left unturned.

Recognising the scope of the problem, identifying the magnitude of the impacts, and formulating ways to address these is practically critical to improving public health, preserving ecosystems, and sustaining economic growth. Regulatory authorities both at Central and states did not take any sincere effect to bring all water bodies into a "good ecological" and "good chemical" state. There is still a long way to go.

Every drop of pollution in Ganga is a matter of concern and thereby NGT, time and again, strictly instructed the concerned states to take the matter seriously to ensure that water quality at every point meets the standards and if there is a violation, the violators are proceeded against under the law by way of prosecution, closure of polluting activities and payment of compensation for damage to the environment to clean the Ganga. The major concern is that pilgrims worshipping Ganga as "holy mother" immerse themselves and drink — a ritual that is supposed to wash away sins and hasten entry into paradise. But pilgrims will continue to be at risk.

Of course, huge public money being spent in the name of cleaning up the Ganga gets projected as a "proof" to establish the concern of the Government, State apparatus, regulators and politicians. But in reality, environmental science hardly promotes cleanliness of Ganga. Rather it promotes the prosperity of manufacturing companies, without bothering the suffering of mankind and humanity and damage to the ecosystem with valuable plants and animals facing the threat of extinction. The inverse relationship between the quantum of money spent and status of water quality "information"(i.e. additional information) reveals that science is being operated without an iota of conscience. But in seminars, conference and meetings (again held at another round of huge expenses), top-level officers strongly advocate their progress. But what "progress" and for whom! If this practice gets continued, people will not have respect for environmental science.

In this context, there is an emergent need to develop new concepts and tools for monitoring and reducing exposure to complex mixtures. Monitoring methods should be used to target the complex mixtures, i.e. effect-based methods that involve representative aquatic organisms such as algae, small crustaceans, fish embryos and suitable cell systems demonstrating how toxic each chemical cocktail is. Overall, all the rivers including the Ganga demand attention at the highest level.

The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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