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Explained: Causes And Impacts Of River Water Pollution In India

River water pollution is a global problem and not peculiar to India. However, rising pollution of rivers in India is a significant concern for the Indian government and population. India is home to about 20 major river basins. Unfortunately, most rivers and river basins in India are victims of pollution.

Importance of Rivers in India

According to a world bank report titled ‘Issues and Priorities for Agriculture’, India has about 195 million hectares of land under cultivation. Of this, about 63% or nearly 125 million hectares is rain-fed, while remaining 37% or 70 million hectares of the agricultural land depends on irrigation. Generally, rivers around agricultural zones provide much-needed water for irrigation.

Additionally, several wildlife sanctuaries of India are located on banks of rivers and their backwaters. These national parks are home to several endangered species that feature on Red List of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Hence rivers in India are critical to their survival.

Further, rivers of India also provide livelihood to millions of people including fishermen, sand dredgers and various other professions.

Given this importance of rivers in India, let us examine the causes of their pollution and possible consequences.

Causes of Pollution

Oil & Natural Gas Exploration

Understandably, India needs to attain self-sufficiency in energy. Hence, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas routinely auctions oil and natural gas blocks to Indian companies for exploration in various river basins. While exploration firms claim to take all the necessary steps to prevent pollution, it is but natural that their methods are not 100% efficient.

Chemicals & Effluents

Industrialisation along the river belt is polluting the water with chemicals and other industrial effluents. While large corporations adopt advanced techniques to treat effluents and chemicals to negate or reduce their toxicity, smaller firms often have no such considerations and violate environment safety standards.

Garbage Dumping

High population density around the river banks and the reckless dumping of non-biodegradable waste, especially plastics, is further adding to water pollution. Despite warning and strict fines imposed by local administrations on those found dumping garbage into rivers and their estuaries, this uncivilised practice continues unabated.

Washing & Sewage

Laundering clothes on river banks is a common sight in India. Modern detergents are made of chemicals that contaminate river waters. Defecating around river banks is yet another horrible practice in rural parts of the country that contributes to rising pollution of rivers in India. The situation is worsened by local administrations and private operators of sewage collection tankers dumping the waste in rivers and their estuaries.

Cremation & Last Rites

Devout Hindus attach a lot of significance to life after death. Hence, cremation grounds in rural India are located on the banks of rivers. Varanasi, also known as Kashi, is one such place with cremation grounds located right on banks of river Ganga which is also one of the longest rivers in India. Unfortunately, lots of Indians families that cannot afford cremation consign mortal remains of loved ones to rivers. These human cadavers cause severe water pollution.

Sand Dredging

High-quality sand from river beds is needed for India’s booming construction industry. This has led to rising pollution in Indian rivers. Dredging operators- usually the unlicensed ones- deploy kerosene and diesel-fueled cheap watercraft manned by cheap labour for sand dredging. Engines of these boats cause pollution.

These are some of the main reasons for rising pollution of rivers in India. Unfortunately, this contamination of Indian rivers- revered as holy by the indigenous community- has a severe environmental impact that affects humans too.

Possible Consequences of River Water Pollution

Rising pollution of rivers in India is affecting humans as well as other flora and fauna. It has a direct impact on the various features of this country.

Impact on Flora & Fauna

Chemical, effluents and sewage that pollute Indian rivers is causing several species of aquatic life to go extinct or move away to safer havens. This has a direct impact on wildlife conservation efforts exerted by the Central and state governments at national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. River contamination threatens biospheres and nature conservation areas. Migratory birds shun these rivers, and hence, they can face extinction. Other species of flora and fauna are threatened by loss of habitat caused by rising pollution of rivers in India.

Loss of Livelihood

Fishermen and fish farms that once flourished on banks of various Indian rivers are finding it increasingly difficult to find sufficient catch of edible fish. Such aquatic life forms have moved away from polluted waters or may face extinction. Fish from polluted rivers is found to be high in mercury, lead and cadmium and hence, unfit for human consumption. Also, edible fish is contaminated with Salmonella, Shigella and other harmful microbes found in human faeces. Thus, such fish is unfit for human consumption.

Drinking Water

According to Niti Aayog, which replaced Planning Commission, whopping 200,000 people lose their lives every year due to various problems caused by consuming contaminated water. The health hazards associated with infected water range from cancer to gastrointestinal disorders that occur due to deadly microbes that are creeping into the rivers. Over 800 million Indians are severely stressed for potable water due to river water pollution, among other reasons. This can severely stunt India’s economic growth.


While agriculture is impacted adversely by rising pollution of rivers, it is also one of the reasons for contaminating waters. The use of modern pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers is polluting our rivers. Interestingly, this impacts the overall productivity of the agricultural land as river water contaminated by industrial effluents cannot be used for irrigating crops. Polluted water does not allow seeds to germinate and cause stunted growth, denying farmers of a bumper harvest. Indigenous agriculture is vital to India for maintaining self-sufficiency in food.

Disease & Health Burden

Rising river water pollution in India is a significant cause of concern since it can cause moderate to severe health conditions among humans and domestic animals. Bathing in contaminated river waters causes skin diseases, allergies, and other such ailments. Consuming polluted water can cause cancer, depletion of calcium from bones of humans and animals (Osteoporosis), loss of vision, impotence among men, sterility among women, Tuberculosis and other severe medical conditions. Majority of Indians depend upon state-sponsored healthcare system since it is readily available and affordable. Hence, state governments, union territory administrations, as well as the central government, face a major health burden that translates into billions of Rupees spent towards providing medical services to those afflicted.

Loss of Export Revenue

Freshwater fish varieties including the famous Hilsa, Rohu, Katla and prawns from Indian rivers once had a high demand in foreign countries, especially in the Middle East. Sadly, river water pollution has caused these varieties of prized fish to get contaminated with disease-causing microbes and chemicals. Consequently, several countries have banned imports of freshwater fish from India, including farmed varieties. This causes a severe loss of export revenue for India.


As we have seen, rising pollution of India spares no area of life in this country. It impacts everyone.  Unless urgent steps are taken to check the pollution of rivers and stringent environment safety rules are enforced strictly, the situation is likely to worsen further.

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