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Ammonia Levels Rise In Yamuna: Delhi's Water Woes Worsen As Govt Passes The Buck

As the Delhi and Haryana governments indulge in a blame game over Yamuna river pollution, the water crisis in Delhi deepens with residents being provided with water contaminated with high levels of ammonia. Poor water management and treatment, polluting industries not being reined-in, and an ineffective anti-pollution body - all add to Delhi’s water woes.

By Lalit Sharma
New Update

publive-image Yamuna river (left) | Picture courtesy: Special arrangement | Contaminated Yamuna water supplied to Delhi residents (right) | Picture courtesy: @dhaani1986 | Twitter

Dhaani Lorwaal, a techie residing in Madangir in South Delhi, posted a picture of contaminated water being supplied to the residents of Delhi by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). “May I know who is taking care of this water supply in this area? Do you guys want to kill us by supplying this drinking water? Do you want us to drink it?” Lorwaal tweeted.

Also Read | Who is Polluting the Yamuna River?

We managed to speak to Lorwaal, who admits this has been the case in Delhi for quite some time now. “I tweeted the picture of this dirty water after we started consistently getting contaminated water for about ten days. This happens quite often in our area, actually. I saw this dirty water and spoke to my mother, and then I also found that the entire neighbourhood was getting the same polluted water. I also argued with the authorities who were supplying this water. They said they would revert to us, but I have not heard from them so far. Since this water is so contaminated, we have been using mineral water for drinking purposes. We can’t even use this water for cleaning purposes,” rues Lorwaal.

Satish Sinha, Associate Director of Toxics Link speaks to The Probe's Lalit Sharma.

The Delhi Jal Board is facing the heat for providing contaminated water to its residents. The Board had recently informed the residents that pollution in the Yamuna had increased significantly, with Ammonia levels rising above 5 ppm. Toxics Link, an NGO that brings toxics-related information to the public domain, had previously conducted several studies on the Yamuna River. Satish Sinha, Associate Director of Toxics Link, states that it is unfortunate that the Delhi Jal Board has still not developed the capacity to treat higher ammonia levels in the water.

Also Read | Yamuna clean-up: Farmers face eviction without rehabilitation package despite proof of land ownership

“Different kinds of industries largely release ammonia, and it is also generated by municipal wastewater, sewage and septic industrial point sources, amongst others. The drinking water standard for ammonia is 0.5 ppm. Anything above this is very harmful to the human body. Most of the treatment plants in Delhi under the DJB are chlorination plants. The capacity of these plants to treat ammonia is up to about 1 ppm only. If ammonia levels are more than that, then it is difficult for these plants to treat it. It is time for technology upgradation,” affirms Sinha.

Sinha adds that the Yamuna River is not an isolated case. “The river water quality in most parts of the country is problematic. There is a degradation in water quality. Many affluents are not treated fully, and some are only partially treated. There are different contamination levels, and we are yet to address this issue. But if you see across the world, the respective governments have cleaned their polluted rivers. In Germany, the Rhine river was cleaned, and in London, the Thames was cleaned up. We as a nation also need to look at our country’s rivers and see how we can clean them up and find a permanent solution.”

Bhim Singh Rawat, a Yamuna activist and an Associate Coordinator with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), says that when the Delhi government says that the ammonia levels in the Yamuna river have reduced, they are in all probability adding groundwater to the Yamuna water. “This is really shocking. After saying that the water levels are above 5 ppm, when the government suddenly says that the ammonia levels in the river water have reduced, in my understanding, the government is also mixing some groundwater along with the Yamuna water so that the ammonia levels can be decreased. But this kind of activity cannot always be done, and this is not a long-term solution.”

Rawat notes that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) must be held accountable for not holding the polluters accountable. “Many years ago, Delhi was getting its water from Drain number 2, which is in Panipat. By the time the water reached Delhi, there were only negligible pollutants. However, after 2005, the water started getting supplied from Drain Number 6, which is in Sonipat and joins the Yamuna River in Palla. Several industries in this region are dumping wastewater into Drain Number 6. But no one is really holding these industries accountable. The CPCB has a pathetic track record of monitoring, regulating and penalising these industries. They lack human resources, as was mentioned in a Parliament debate earlier. Many posts in states are still lying vacant.”

The DJB supplies 995 million gallons of water daily to around two crore residents of Delhi against the demand of 1,300 million gallons per day. The DJB has consistently maintained that the root source of pollutants lies upstream in Yamuna at Panipat and Sonipat - which has been a bone of contention between the Delhi and Haryana governments for years. The Haryana government has maintained that high ammonia levels in the Yamuna River result from the Delhi government’s water management failures.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has said that the Delhi government will soon set up treatment plants to treat higher ammonia levels. But there are not many buyers for these assurances. “These are empty promises. This is not the first time ammonia levels have increased in the Yamuna, and this has been going on for so many years. What was the Delhi government doing all this while?” asks Santanu, a resident of South Delhi.

Also Read | Dire State of Delhi’s Sewage Treatment Plants Raises Alarming Concerns

“Our treatment plant only has the capacity to treat around 1 ppm of ammonia level. So, what do you do when the ammonia levels are higher than 5 ppm? Technology upgradation to treat higher levels of ammonia may be one solution, but perhaps we must also look at the source identification and plug loopholes there. They must regularly conduct periodic mapping of ammonia levels from these sources,” says Piyush Mohapatra, Senior Programme Coordinator at Toxics Link.

Dr Sushila Kataria, a Senior Director in the Internal Medicine department at Medanta Hospital in Gurugram, states that higher ammonia levels will seriously affect people. “Ammonia is a compound which is formed by nitrogen and hydrogen. It is also present in our bodies. When proteins get metabolised, we excrete Ammonia and Creatinine through urine. This is how the body decontaminates itself. Since ammonia is present in our urine and if our drinking water gets contaminated by urine or stool of humans or animals, this is extremely serious. The presence of ammonia in drinking water means that it has been contaminated by human or animal faeces and has not been treated properly.”

Kataria adds that the ammonia levels in Yamuna are expected to skyrocket in the days to come. “Though the limit for the presence of ammonia in drinking water is 0.5 ppm worldwide, in Delhi, it is sometimes 16 times higher than the permissible limits. As the summer progresses, this problem is expected to worsen as there will be no rain, and because of heat, water gets concentrated, and the ammonia levels will steadily rise."

(The Probe has approached Delhi Water Minister Saurabh Bharadwaj for a response. This article will be updated once we receive a response from the minister.)