The Yamuna is also the main source of water for nearly 20 million people yet it’s severely polluted.
Images of worshipers praying in billowing foam on the water in the Yamuna, a sacred river in New Delhi, India, may be intriguing. Yet the practice is hardly healthy. The photogenic foam on the river contains high levels of toxic ammonia and the water underneath it is also badly polluted.
The Yamuna, which is also called Jumna, is the longest tributary of the Ganges, and like “Mother Ganga” the Yamuna, too, is regarded as sacred by Hindus who associate it with a river goddess, or devi. Prayers bathe in the river’s sacred waters as they believe that dipping into the holy water can cleanse them spiritually.
The Yamuna is also the main source of water for nearly 20 million people living in the nation’s capital. However, the river has become one of the most severely polluted waterways in the country. “The water is absolutely black in color,” commented Hari Lal, who lives on the riverbank. “The water is [full of] chemicals,” he added.
The main reason for the color of the river is that the Yamuna is pumped full of more than 800 million liters of largely untreated sewage each day. Another 44 million liters of industrial effluents is also discharged daily into the river. Sewage that is treated before being released into the river accounts for only 35% of the total estimated sewage discharge.
The effects of these practices have been ecologically devastating. The Yamuna is considered to be “a dead river” where few aquatic animals can survive, especially during a 600km stretch of the river surrounding the nation’s capital.
Water bodies where a biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) is less than 3 mg/l are considered to be healthy. The BOD of the Yamuna, however, reaches 13 mg/l at some points in it. Scientists have warned of the increased risk of diseases to people who live along the river and use it as their main source of water for bathing, washing and even cooking.
Tan Singh is one of many such residents. He’s suffered bone deformities and fluoride poisoning because of the toxins in the river. “The doctor has told me it’s [because of] the water,” said Singh. “I can’t breathe much. When I inhale I feel stiff, my ribs ache. I can’t sit, move around, nothing.”
That has left Mr. Singh with a choice that he can’t afford. “The doctor has said [I ought] to stop drinking this water and has suggested we buy bottles of filtered water,” he explained. “Every time, how can we buy and drink it? It’s too expensive.”
Yet no matter how polluted the sacred river is, pilgrims from across India continue going for dips in the Yamuna in the hope of spiritual benefits. “Yes, the Yamuna is polluted, but it has the power to liberate us,” said a worshiper who went to the river to perform ritual ablutions in its water.