The World’s Next Environmental Disaster
(WSJ) DELHI—The Yamuna River that flows through this ancient city has helped sustain some of India’s greatest empires. Hindu poets celebrated its life-giving properties. The Mughal dynasty built the Taj Mahal and other monuments along its banks.
Today, the Yamuna is a foul sludge for much of its 855-mile run. In Delhi, it is black and nearly motionless, covered in many areas with a foam of industrial chemicals, floating plastic and human waste.
Every 100 milliliters of the Yamuna in Delhi contains 22 million fecal coliform bacteria, up from 12,250 in 1988, scientists say. Anything over 500 is unsafe for bathing, India’s government says. The comparable standard in Vermont is 235.
Illnesses ranging from diarrhea to brain worms are reported along the river’s edges. By the time the Yamuna exits Delhi, it is so defiled that scientists have declared the next 300 miles “eutrophic,” or incapable of sustaining animal life.
“The fact that I cannot take my children to their own river, in their own city, is for me a tragedy of colossal proportions,” says Pankaj Vir Gupta, a 47-year-old architect and professor who splits time between India and the U.S. “Right now we don’t have a river,” he says. “We have a drain.”
For years, global environmentalists have focused on China, whose rapid industrialization made it one of the world’s most polluted major nations. Now it’s India’s turn.
Unlike China, which has become wealthier and is starting to clean up, India is in the early stages of industrial growth. It is following the same road China took to get richer, meaning more factories and cars. Yet, it already has some of the world’s worst environmental problems.
A government report in 2015 found that 275 of 445 rivers in India are severely polluted, including the Ganges. An international nonprofit, WaterAid, says 70% of India’s surface water is contaminated. Diarrhea, often caused by drinking bad water, is the fourth-leading cause of death in India, ahead of any cancer, and kills far more people than in China, which has a larger population.
Greenpeace says that in 2015, the average Indian was subjected to more air pollution than the average Chinese for the first time, as China’s “systematic efforts” to improve air have started working. A 2016 WHO report found that 10 out of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in India, based on residents’ exposure to deadly small particulate matter.