Development for Commonwealth Games Impacts Delhi's Major River

By Frederick Noronha

NEW DELHI, India, May 16, 2007 (ENS) - Water campaigners are worried that the floodplains of the river running through India's capital city are being converted into shopping malls, residential and commercial establishments, and hotels in advance of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Construction for the 10 day sporting event in Delhi will ruin the ecosystem, they fear.

A 47.3 hectare (118 acre) site for the Games Village has been selected on the banks of the Yamuna River, in the heart of the capital with a capacity for 8,500 athletes and officials. To be built at a cost of US$40 million, the Games Village is being underwritten by the government of India.

Other sites for the Games throughout Delhi are being built and upgraded, but environmentalists say the already polluted river will suffer.

To build public awareness about threats to the Yamuna River, a meeting is being held on May 19 in the Indian capital of New Delhi. The gathering is taking place at the Satyagraha Mandap, Gandhi Darshan, Rajghat, the memorial built to Mahatma Gandhi, considered to be the father of the Indian independence movement.

The event is being organized by Jal Biradari, a movement which describes itself as an Indian "national water brotherhood." Its members include people from all walks of life including farmer groups, social groups, nongovernmental organizations, research institutions, social scientists and water experts.

Jal Biradari says it is concerned about "water conservation, forest-soil management, promotion of water conservation work as well as with struggle to re-establish community water rights."

Since 1998 through its awareness programs and water conferences, the Jal Biradari has been aiming to develop a "people-oriented national and state water policy" under the banner of "rejuvenating nature by living with nature."

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Delhi residents swim in the garbage-filled Yamuna River. (Photo courtesy Ministry of Environment and Forests)
On May 19, the group will discuss how to revive the river and its ecosystem "in the light of the fact that it's being systematically decimated by the government and private sector."

Water campaigner and journalist Nitya Jacobs said, "Its floodplains are being converted into malls and residential and commercial establishments like hotels in the name of a mere 10 day long sporting event called the Commonwealth Games."

The Yamuna River, sometimes also called the Jamuna or Jumna, is the largest tributary of the Ganges River. It runs for 1,370 kilometers from its source in the Himalayan mountains at Yamunotri, in northern India.

Flowing through the states of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the river merges with the Ganges at Allahabad. The cities of Delhi, Mathura and Agra lie on its banks.

The Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially around the Indian capital. Many unsuccessful attempts have been made to clean it. These were hampered by Delhi's high population density, the illegal dumping of untreated water and solid waste into the river, and inadequate government monitoring together with mismanagement of projects to clean it.

Delhi alone dumps an estimated 3,296 million liters (870 million gallons) of sewage per day into the river.

Water in the Yamuna remains stagnant for almost nine months of the year, making the situation worse.

Now the Yamuna's flood plain is being developed for power plants, metro stations, the Akshardham temple and the Commonwealth Games Village.

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The Akshardham temple on the bank of the Yamuna River in Delhi. (Photo courtesy Miguelle Guisson)
"This will impact the water security of the city in the long-term and change the character of the river," the Jal Biradari group warned.

The Yamuna, which bisects Delhi, was once its perennial source of drinking water. It enters Delhi at Wazirabad and leaves the city at Okhla, dividing it into eastern and western parts.

Jal Biradari argues that buildings on the flood plain also will aggravate the water scarcity in the city of Delhi. Groundwater levels are falling between one and two meters (three to six feet) every year in many parts of Delhi.

Reducing the flood plain area could make this fall further, the water campaigners say.

They point to the restrictive effect of existing bunds, protective walls that have restricted the flood plain.

Many lakes and ponds in east Delhi that were filled by the flood waters of the Yamuna dried up when they were cut off from the river by these bunds and housing or commercial complexes.

This latest campaign to save the Yamuma will begin by studying causes of pollution of the river and the role it plays in life of the people of the Delhi region.

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People have built homes on the Yamuna River floodplain near Delhi. (Photo courtesy Ganges River Partnership Project)
"It will diversify into raising awareness, based on its understanding, among citizens of how to contribute to reducing pollution in the river," said Jal Biradari.

"The campaign will also propagate rainwater harvesting on rooftops, lawns, parks and roads through people-oriented decentralized water harvesting," the group said.

The organizers hope that by focusing attention on the water problems of India's capital city it will create a ripple effect through the country about the need to improve the condition of rivers, lakes, streams and other water bodies.

India has worked on a Rs 10,000 million (US$246.6 million) Yamuna Action Plan to improve the water quality of the river. Although critics see it has having "achieved very little" to stop pollution in the river, there are now plans for a second Yamuna Action Plan that will cost twice as much.

Jal Biradari says its grassroots campaign will aim for people's involvement to stop the pollution of the river and encroachment on the river's flood plains as the government "has not proved equal to the task."

While criticizing the government, Jal Biradari is also seeking government involvement in decisionmaking for the Yamuna, particularly in managing water resources.

In the long term, Jal Biradari aims to create a national river revival movement and a water education movement to safeguard water and rivers at the ecosystem level.

The campaign to save India's rivers coincides with the 150th anniversary of the First War of Independence in 1857 against colonial British rule. It is "a time when it important to underline our responsibilities as citizens of independent India," said Jal Biradari.

View a map of the 2010 Commonwealth Games venues, click here.