Kristian Bertel | Photography
Archive story
In this archive story we are visiting India's most polluted river, the Yamuna.
Read the background story of this archive photo by the photographer.
The Yamuna continues to be polluted with garbage while most sewage treatment facilities are underfunded or malfunctioning. In addition, the water in this river remains stagnant for almost 9 months in a year, aggravating the situation. For Hindus, the Yamuna is not just a natural resource, but also one of the holiest rivers in India. In this photo the Yamuna River has been photographed in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.
The Yamuna continues to be polluted with garbage while most sewage treatment facilities are underfunded or malfunctioning. In addition, the water in this river remains stagnant for almost 9 months in a year, aggravating the situation. For Hindus, the Yamuna is not just a natural resource, but also one of the holiest rivers in India. In this photo the Yamuna River has been photographed in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Kristian Bertel, Photographer By Kristian Bertel, Photographer
– Updated on May 6, 2024

Yamuna – India's most polluted river

In 1909 the waters of the Yamuna were distinguishable as clear blue, as compared to the silt-laden yellow of the Ganges. However, due to high density population growth and rapid industrialization today Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially around New Delhi, the capital of India, which dumps about 58 percent of its waste into the river. New Delhi generates 1,900 million liters per day of sewage. Though many attempts have been made to process it, the efforts have proven futile.

Is the Yamuna River more than just a natural resource?

For Hindus, the Yamuna is not just a natural resource, but also one of the holiest rivers in India. She is a goddess, a giver of life and the chief lover of Krishna. So the protesters were motivated as much by faith as by environmental outrage. In the past they would have relied exclusively on prayers, incense and offerings of fresh flowers to practice 'Seva', the Hindu ritual of loving service to the deity. But of necessity there has lately also come to mean environmental action, working to restore life to a river now widely regarded as dead.

One of the major tributaries of the Ganges
The Yamuna River, also known as the 'Jumna', is one of the major tributaries of the Ganges in northern India. It is one of the major rivers in India and flows through the states of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It is the longest tributary of the Ganges and has a length of 1,376 kilometers. The Yamuna is an important river for the Hindu religion and culture. It is one of the 7 sacred rivers in Hinduism and is considered to be a goddess in her own right. Hindus often perform rituals and take part in festivals at the river's edge and the river is worshipped during the sacred 'Kumbh Mela festival'. The Yamuna is also a vital source of water for the communities that live along its banks. It is used for drinking, bathing and irrigation and is also home to many species of fish and other aquatic life.

One of the most polluted rivers in India
Unfortunately, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in India. Industrial effluents and sewage are dumped in the river and the water is often highly contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other toxins. In addition, the over-extraction of water for agriculture and other uses has caused the river to dry up in some parts of the year. In recent years, the Yamuna has become the focus of several clean-up efforts, including the 'Yamuna Action Plan', which aims to improve water quality and restore the river's ecology. The Government of India is also investing in programs to improve the management of the river, such as the 'Yamuna Riverfront Development Project'. Despite these efforts, the Yamuna remains a major environmental concern. The river is in dire need of protection and restoration and it is up to all of us to help ensure that this sacred river is preserved for future generations.

Yamuna continues to be polluted with garbage

Although the government of India has spent nearly $500 million dollars to clean up the river, the Yamuna continues to be polluted with garbage while most sewage treatment facilities are underfunded or malfunctioning. In addition, the water in this river remains stagnant for almost 9 months in a year, aggravating the situation. Delhi alone contributes a lot of sewage in the river. The Government of India over the next 5 years has prepared plans to rebuild and repair the sewage system and the drains that empty into the river. The Yamuna is the largest tributary of the Ganges River. Where it flows through Delhi, it is estimated that 58 percent of the city's waste gets dumped straight into the river. Millions of Indians still rely on these murky, sewage-filled waters for washing, waste disposal and drinking water.

Polluted river in India
The Yamuna River starts out clear as rainwater from a lake and hot spring at the foot of a glacier, 5,852 kilometers up in the Himalayas. But for much of its 1,373 kilometers in length, it is now one of the world's most defiled rivers and most polluted river in India. Agricultural demand repeatedly depletes the river's flow. Rapid modernization of the Indian economy since the 1980s has added thousands of manufacturing plants to the Yamuna's watershed, with little thought given to how much water they take out or how much pollution they add back. And urbanization has roughly quintupled the population of New Delhi, from about 3.5 million people 30 years ago to more than 18 million today. In some places, the Yamuna is now so heavily exploited that broad swaths of riverbed lie naked and exposed to the Sun for much of the year.

In other places, the river is a sudsy, listless morass of human, industrial and agricultural wastes, literally an open sewer. Given that 60 million people depend on the river for bathing and drinking water, a protest might seem inevitable. The surprising thing, at least to untutored Western eyes, was that the leaders of the Yamuna march were not primarily political activists. They were 'Sadhus' or holy men, devotees of the central Hindu hero and deity Krishna. They briefly shut down their temples along the river as part of the protest and they added a colorful strand of religious belief to the familiar environmental language of oxygen content, turbidity and toxicity.

"With more than half the sewage in Delhi entering the river untreated and fecal coliform counts in places reaching over 100,000 per 100 milliliters which is 200 times the standard for water to be swimmable"

A holy river in India
When Mathura, one of the towns along the route, moved to end the blight of plastic shopping bags along the river banks. The river seemed relatively healthy when he first moved to New Delhi almost 30 years ago. People were swimming in the river. You could drink the water. But the condition of the Yamuna deteriorated rapidly from that point as India began to modernize. There was clearly a lack of coordination, a lack of information and perhaps an ignorance of the aggregate impacts. But now there is no such excuse. Now we see the collective impact of what happened and the condition of the river is so dire that it has become impossible for anyone to ignore and the problems fall into 5 broad categories, which are lack of flow due to dams and heavy withdrawals for agricultural irrigation and other purposes at Delhi, where pollution authorities say the flow should be at least 285 m3 per second, it drops down in summer months to as little as five cubic meters per second.

Yamuna in religious imagery have now largely vanished and no one really knows the status of bird species that depend on the river. And in the face of global warming the uncertain future of the dwindling Himalayan glaciers that are the source of the river. The creatures that depend on the river are clearly in trouble and the big river turtles that carry the goddess. Aquatic life has also suffered and 500 river villages that were largely based on fishing in the 1970s must now earn their livelihood by other means. The effects of the river's pollution on human health, though also inadequately studied, include a sharp spike in cases of 'Hepatitis A' and 'Typhoid fever', according to recent work in New Delhi. Reliance on polluted river water is also a major factor in India's high infant mortality rate more than 50 deaths per 1,000 births and pollution of the Yamuna could also have public health consequences worldwide.

Dirtiest rivers in India
A recent report made a couple of years ago holds that the most polluted rivers in India in terms of depth of pollutants are Cooum River in Tamil Nadu, Sabarmati River in Gujarat and Bahela in Uttar Pradesh as the water being reduced to sewage and hardly any life is visible in the polluted stretches. Untreated wastewater and poor quality of water discharged from the wastewater treatment plants are the major reasons of Yamuna's pollution in Delhi.

Contamination of the river consist of:
• Agricultural pesticides and herbicides
• Toxic industrial wastes
• Human wastes

See this video from the Yamuna River made by The Hindu.

The photographer's own experience of seeing the Yamuna River
"- As a frequent traveler, I've had the opportunity to explore many beautiful countries and experience their different cultures. During a recent trip to India, I was excited to visit some of the famous landmarks and explore the vibrant cities. However, my experience took an unexpected turn when I learned about the severe pollution of the Yamuna River. The Yamuna River is one of the most sacred rivers in India, flowing through the capital city of New Delhi and passing by many important religious sites. It is also a major source of water for millions of people living in the surrounding areas. However, my visit to the river left me shocked and saddened by the sorry state it was in", the Photographer says.

"- As I approached the river, the smell of sewage and industrial waste became overpowering. The once clear waters were now murky and littered with plastic bottles, bags and other waste. People were still using the river for various activities such as washing clothes, bathing and even drinking water. It was heartbreaking to see the locals, especially children, playing in such polluted water without realizing the potential health hazards"
, the Photographer says again.

"- I decided to take a boat ride along the river to get a closer look at the pollution. The water was visibly contaminated, with a thick layer of foam covering its surface. The boatman informed me that the foam is a result of the toxic chemicals and industrial waste that is dumped into the river. He also shared that the river is also home to many disease-causing microorganisms, making it hazardous for human contact. I couldn't help but wonder how such a significant source of water had become so polluted and what was being done to address it"
, the Photographer says again.

"- After some research, I found out that the main cause of the Yamuna River's pollution was the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial waste. The city's pipeline system was not equipped to handle the massive population, resulting in the dumping of raw sewage directly into the river. The situation was dire and it was disheartening to see the lack of government initiatives to clean up the river. Many local and international organizations are working towards cleaning and restoring the Yamuna River, but their efforts seem to be insufficient in the face of the scale of pollution"
, the Photographer says again.

"- My experience at the Yamuna River left a lasting impact on me. I realized that pollution is not just an environmental issue, but also a health and social problem. The pollution of the Yamuna River not only affects the aquatic life but also the livelihoods of the people living along its banks. It is a wake-up call for all of us to take action, not just for the Yamuna but also for other polluted rivers worldwide. As I continued my travels in India, I couldn't shake off the images of the polluted Yamuna River from my mind. It made me grateful for the clean and well-maintained water bodies in my own country and I'm reminded of the importance of preserving them. I hope that my firsthand experience of the pollution of the Yamuna River will raise awareness and prompt others to take action towards preserving our environment for future generations"
, the Photographer says again.

Read also:  Waste and recycling in India

Waste and recycling in India

Read also:  Waste and recycling in India

More archive stories

India is a land full of stories. On every street, on every corner and in the many places in India, life is rushing by you as a photographer with millions of stories to be told. In the archive story above, you hopefully had a readable insight in the story that was behind the photo of the Yamuna River in Agra. On this website of Kristian Bertel | Photography you can find numerous travel pictures from the photographer. Stories and moments that tell the travel stories of how the photographer captured the specific scene that you see in the picture. The photographer's images have a story behind them, images that all are taken from around India throughout his photo journeys. The archive stories delve into Kristian's personal archive to reveal never-before-seen, including portraits and landscapes beautifully produced snapshots from various travel assignments. The archive is so-far organized into photo stories, this one included, each brought to life by narrative text and full-color photos. Together, these fascinating stories tell a story about the life in India. India, the motherland to many people around the world, a land of unforgetable travel moments. The archive takes viewers on a spectacular visual journey through some of the most stunning photographs to be found in the photographer's archive collection. The photographer culled the images to reflect the many variations on the universal theme of beauty and everyday life in India. By adding these back stories the photographer's work might immensely enhanced the understanding of the photographs.