Hidden danger beneath the water surface

Debapriya Mukherjee
The  water pollution has become a nagging agony as it has reached to alarming proportion despite spending crores of rupees for cleaning the rivers including Ganga. Today many water bodies are severely polluted and aquatic ecosystem is on the verge of collapse. We can cite example of  Bellandur Lake in Bangalore, which is on fire and has rained ash onto nearby buildings and spilled foam regularly onto the roads. 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 such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans in such a manner that many  pollutants remain unknown.  These deficiencies may be attributed to apathy of top management to take constructive administrative decision; mindset of scientists; political will and poor governance in environment sector to explore the danger chemicals causing upset of natural ecosystem 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 hidden danger that  lie beneath the water’s surface on 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 micro pollutants like pesticides, polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), pharmaceutical products, micro plastics, metals from various point- and non-point sources. Point source polluters include industries, mines,  municipalities, registered health care facilities  and wastewater treatment facilities. Nonpoint sources are essentially everything else. Regulatory authorities do not regulate nonpoint sources, which includes agriculture among many.  Residual pesticides and chemical fertilizers originating from agriculture field ultimately find their way to the rivers.  Unfortunately, the main focus of monitoring program is to evaluate the sewage-related contaminants such as BOD, TSS, total coliform and faecal coliform despite prevalence of many micro pollutants in river water.   Huge financial investment 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 for 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 clearly revealed the presence of  metals, pesticides and  PAH in some rivers and in many drains discharging their wastewater to the rivers.  Beyond sewage related contaminants, other  water and sediment quality parameters identified in these investigations clearly revealed the  presence of micro pollutants 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 in nature and accumulate in the animal as well as human bodies. Presence of pesticides in Ganga river  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 waterbodies 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.
Even Ganga river — “Mother Ganges”— becomes one of the planet’s most polluted rivers, a cocktail of urban sewage, animal waste, pesticides, medicine, fertilizers and industrial metals despite spending INR 4000 crores up to Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and further spending of crores of rupees after announcement of INR 20,000 crores in 2014. Recognizing 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 in accordance with the law by way of prosecution, closure of polluting activities and payment of compensation for damage to the environment to clean the Ganga. Because 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 threat of extinction. The inverse relationship between quantum of money spent and status of water quality “information” (ie additional information) clearly 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 have ZERO respect to environmental science.  In this context there is 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  needs attention at the highest level.
The writer is Former Senior Scientist, CPCB