How Healthy Are Our Rivers?

Kartik S. Sapre



The Narmada River Health Index was conceptualised by our founder Anil Madhav Dave. The late Anil Dave, who served as the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, renowned for his dedication and commitment to traditional values and inclination towards contemporary ideas and innovative thinking. Quite understandably, he was also an advocate of responsible living.

Anil Dave’s commitment to environment and ecology stood out most prominently in his concern for rivers, which he believed are living entities and a single, holistic segment from their origin to confluence. Hence, rivers should be viewed beyond the geographical boundaries of states. Also, their health should be checked and monitored periodically like that of humans. Dave ji constantly encouraged and designed an entire gamut of activities with maximum community involvement in them. It is with his blessings that we began working on this report, which incorporates water testing, one of Dave ji’s ideas to acquaint, educate and associate children with science and logical thinking along with traditional and cultural practices.

We feel the deteriorating health of our rivers calls for our urgent attention. The fact is only 3 percent of all water is freshwater and fit for human consumption. Of this freshwater, less than 0.3 percent is in rivers, lakes and the atmosphere. Approximately 98.9 percent lies in the form of ice and groundwater. Rivers, along with their catchment areas must be considered as a holistic living entities and their surrounding land, river bed, aquatic life, ponds, groundwater, forest, biodiversity and human settlements are indicators of river’s health and must therefore be scientifically monitored.

Like the human immune system, rivers too have their own systems to keep themselves healthy and sustained. However, various factors like the behaviour of riparian societies, social structures, customs, local, national and international policies play an important role in the health of river system. Various human activities are a cause of their ill health. If not checked or monitored for a long time, causes deterioration in the health of river, which may sometime become incurable and later can cause the extinction of the riverine system. We believe that river health should be monitored, as is required for humans. The river health index is therefore a compilation of various parameters depicting changes, issues, condition, quality and overall functioning of the system.

In 2011-2012, Narmada Samagra began collecting samples and relevant data from the banks through our field coordinators and with the help of volunteers; the gamut of data was named Narmada River Health Index. Further to this, we initiated a Water Testing program with the idea of community based monitoring, which was successfully implemented from 2014 to 2017. This was achieved with the help of school children studying in villages on the banks of Narmada and our volunteers.

The water testing program was taken up in the field with our dedicated volunteers and dynamic students from both government and private schools, on the banks of River Narmada. We wish to express our heartfelt gratitude to Lok Shikshan Sanchanalay, Department of School Education, Government of Madhya Pradesh, for supporting the project and encouraging the government schools (along the banks of Narmada) to participate in this program, which helped in spreading awareness among the school kids. This all was possible because of support from Merck India Ltd, who adopted the water testing program under their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and extended their support both financially and morally.

The results and related reports led us to the conclusion that continuous monitoring is required and altogether we compiled the data to for a report on “Developing an Information Management System for Developing Narmada River Health Index”. This publication received ISBN as well and the first copy was presented to Union Minister for Jal Shakti, Mr. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat in August 2019.

There are various other studies and research being conducted worldwide on the water quality and river health. Many of these came up with different methodologies, such as based on Water Quality Index; Overall Pollution Index; Ecological Health Index; Ecological Quality Index and River Pollution Index, etc. The  parameters like physical, chemical, biological, geomorphological, hydrological, aquatic, ecological, surface water quality, pollution level, bacteriological, flora-fauna, water streams coming to river, base-flow, soil, rocks, biodiversity, water use pattern, discharge sources in river, riparian culture, fisheries & aquaculture, etc., are being studied at different levels in different parts of the country as well as around the world.

Many such references and researches are available through which a proper River Health Indicators may be redefined and the index may be framed and an Information Management System can be developed. The behaviour of riparian society, extensive use of chemicals and fertilizers in agriculture, deforestation, pollution by cities/towns and industries on the banks, mining, climate change, etc. are some key issues which directly or indirectly impact the health of the river. All these have different departments/institutions/organization working on them separately for their welfare and improving policies. However, an innovative and integrated approach is required to study and analyze the impacts of these activities on the overall health of the river. All these information/data and practices can be compiled and analyzed to frame a Holistic Management System for River Health Index.

Well coordinated intergovernmental practices will definitely help, with proper consultation from experts and locals as well. The proper utilization of socio-economic data and combination of cultural and traditional practices and indigenous knowledge will surely bring change.

It is well documented that how healthy, flowing rivers with unpolluted ample water is critical for the survival of our country. We can go ahead and say, that in the well being of the rivers, depends our health and future. If we neglect the health of the rivers and compromise on this most vital element our sustenance, then we are putting our own existence on stake.

Late Anil M. Dave ji’s Note of 2012 on River Health Index

Be it Narmada or any other river, big or small, all of them are one life and a vibrant ecosystem. Rivers draw their water from their respective catchment area, and they breathe from the forests that envelop them. The various ecological subsystems of a river, keep the river healthy only if they are able to keep themselves healthy. It is also important to recognize that a river possesses the capability to keep itself healthy and renew its own state of wellness, just as humans and other beings can. More important however, is the ecosystem, the societal structures interwoven with rivers, industry, governmental policies and their working plays a major role in rendering a river system either healthy or unhealthy.

This is the way civilised societies have cared for the health and well-being of each and every denizen. Treatment proceeds whenever anyone falls sick, monumental efforts are undertaken in order to ensure that the sickness does not become debilitating and incurable. Efforts on a similar scale need to be undertaken for rivers and their catchment area, and on a continual basis. The foremost requirement for this is the incessant monitoring of a river’s health (and that of its ecosystem). If any malaise is found affecting the overall river system, it must be diagnosed forthwith and treated accordingly.

 The Narmada Samagra has prepared a River Health Index for this very purpose. The objective of this health index has been to examine the various aspects of its programs at least three or four times a year, so that any adverse effects, i.e. malaise, could be identified well in time. It is hoped that the conclusions emanating from these health indices would go on to determine the directions of efforts to be undertaken in future.

 It would indeed be a major landmark if an Indian Institute for River Health and Science (IIRHS) in the county were to come up for the purpose of tending to the health if rivers, along the line of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). This would be essential to keep a constant watch on the health of the country’s rivers and also to determine the tasks and functions to be undertaken in this regard by the government, society and social organizations.

(The author was earlier associated with Anil Madhav Dave ji for eight years as his PA/PS and later as his APS in MoEFCC. He is presently associated with Narmada Samagra Nyas based in Bhopal and working full time managing and coordinating the work and also continuing the work initiated on River Conservation on River Narmada. He’s currently pursuing his Ph.D from Centre For Rural Development and Technology, IIT Delhi).

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