People celebrating a festival in India’s capital of New Delhi this week were greeted with a strange sight: what looked like a blanket of snow covering the city’s main river. A thick covering of white foam has covered the Yamuna River in recent days, a byproduct of the immense amount of waste in the river. Despite the possible dangers from the substance, people still flocked into the river to celebrate the festival of Chhath Puja.
Toxic Foam Is a Result of Sewage and Pollutants
The toxic foam is a result of sewage, industrial and agricultural chemicals, and other pollutants that have been released into the Yamuna River. This constant noxious flow has raised the levels of both ammonia and phosphates in the river. A report from a government pollution control agency released last year noted that foam tends to form downstream of two dams on the river, theorizing that water release from the dam mixes and agitates all the pollution together, making foam. The river’s flow is lower around this time of year, meaning that there’s less water than usual to dilute the pollutants, which helps the foam to form.
New Delhi isn’t the only Indian city that’s had foam problems in recent years. In 2017, foam spilled onto the streets of Bangalore, carried by the wind from nearby heavily-polluted Varthur Lake.
Water Shortages Due to Pollution
It’s not just the foam that is impacting residents; high ammonia levels also affected water supply in parts of the city this week. Officials warned residents in various areas of the city to “make judicious use of water” on Sunday and said they were taking steps to manage the shortened supply. The river provides water for half the 28.5 million residents of New Delhi.
‘We Don’t Have Many Options’
The snow-like scene unfolding on the Yamuna comes at the start of Chhath Puja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the sun god Surya. Bathing for purity is a key part of the four-day festival.
Some bathers told reporters that they were aware of the possible dangers of the foam, which experts say can cause breathing problems and irritate the skin, but felt that they had no other choice.
“The water is extremely dirty, but we don’t have many options,” Gunjan Devi, who came to bathe in the river as part of the festival, told Reuters. “It is a ritual to take a bath in a water body so we have come here to bathe.”
An ‘Ecologically Dead River’
The Yamuna, which stretches 1,376 kilometres through northern India, is the longest tributary of the Ganges River. It’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the world, thanks in part to its path through New Delhi, the capital of India, which sits upstream of much of the river’s route. A government monitoring committee for the river estimates that the city is responsible for 76% of the pollution in the river, despite only 2% of the river’s length running through the city itself.
All this stress has taken a toll on the Yamuna. “The river in Delhi’s stretch is an ecologically dead river,” Bhim Singh Rawat, from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told CNN. “It doesn’t have fish or fresh water birds. That has been the case for years now.”
Locals Say the Government Is Not Doing Enough
Indian authorities say they have dispatched motorboats to try and clear up the river and built bamboo barricades to keep the foam from flowing downstream. The Delhi government released a plan earlier this year to address pollution and foam problems, but opponents in Congress have said the government is still not doing enough.
Laws have been passed against polluting the river, but agricultural and industrial manufacturers continue to dump pollutants in the Yamuna regardless. Untreated sewage and other household pollutants from residents adds to the problem. New Delhi’s sanitation system is woefully inadequate, and only 55% of the city’s residents in the urban centre — 9.9 million people — have access to a centralised sewer system.
“We have told the government so many times about this,” another unnamed local Yamuna bather told India Today. “But they do nothing.”
New Delhi Is ‘Full of Pollution’
People living in New Delhi don’t just have to worry about the Yamuna. The air pollution in the city, which is regularly some of the worst in the world, took a serious turn for the worse last week following the festival of Diwali. Smog covered much of the city and some areas were designated as a “hazardous” air quality level, the worst level, with some places registering a PM2.5 pollutant measure of 999 per cubic metre, the maximum reading. A “satisfactory” air quality index is between 50 and 100, while much of the city was at readings over 500, categorised as “severe.” Air pollution alone kills an estimated 10-million-plus annually around the world.
“Delhi is full of pollution but still people’s lives are going on,” devotee Rajendra Mahto, who came to the Yamuna to bathe, told Al Jazeera. “Like that, we will also do our prayers.”