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Once Assam’s Lifeline, The Brahmaputra River Today Is Struggling with Oil Pollution and Waste Disposal Which Are Gradually Rendering It Lifeless

Brahmaputra in Assam is dealing with oil pollution, lack of sewage treatment plants and disposal of waste in the river, resulting in its gradual decay and over-pollution

Pollution in Brahmaputra
  • Brahmaputra, Assam’s largest river, is facing severe pollution crisis
  • Waste disposal and oil pollution are major issues plaguing the river
  • Guwahati is the worst polluter due to lack of sewage treatment plants

The family of Barmans have been residents of Guwahati for as long as they can remember. Biplab Barman, the 55-year-old family head says that he was born in Guwahati and saw the city transform  from a quiet, small hub with barely few buildings to the bustling, populated and polluted mess that it is today. Mr Barman reminiscences that one of his earliest memories of childhood was going to the banks of the river Brahmaputra for a walk with his father and on certain days, he and his cousins would take a plunge into the crystal clear water of the river. The next generation of Barmans haven’t been so lucky, as the stretch of the river, which is half-an-hour’s drive from their home is characterised by polluted, foul water and even a walk today by the banks seem difficult, let alone an impromptu swim in the contaminated water.

Measuring nearly 4000 kilometres (3,848) in length, the mighty Brahmaputra river originates in Tibet and flows throw three countries, is of major source of water in east and north-east India, and culminates in Bangladesh.  In Assam, it flows for a length of 640 kilometres, the largest among India’s states. With the increase in urbanisation and industrialisation in the state, Brahmaputra has joined the long list of rivers in India which faces the threat of pollution from industrial and domestic sources.

High Urbanisation Becoming Brahmaputra’s Bane

Urban population growth in Assam has been rapid, and the increase has had its toll on urban areas, and adverse effect on the river Brahmaputra. Between 1951 and 2011, the number of urban centres with population of over 1 lakh increased from 12 to 214 in Assam, as per statistics from the Ministry of Urban Development. In the three cities of Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Tezpur through which the river flows, population has increased at an average annual rate of 20 per cent, resulting in more constructions, increase in water consumption and higher generation of waste. Even in rural Assam, as per census 2011, 59.4 per cent of the state’s 63 lakh households were dependent on water from the river, putting a huge strain on it. As urbanisation increased in the state’s three major cities, waste generation also increased highly. Usage of river water increased due to increasing urbanisation and so did waste disposal, putting dual pressure on the river.

The three main cities of Assam through which the river flows have grown tremendously in the last four or five decades, and the impact has been felt directly by the Brahmaputra. This has resulted in a lot of land on the river banks being bought or encroached upon, sewage systems from these homes directly dumping their waste into the river, as well as people disposing of solid waste in the river. The river water quality has since deteriorated, said Dr Bimal Kar, ex Head, Department of Geography, Gauhati University.

The example of Dibrugarh, which generates a significant amount of 75 to 80 metric tonnes of garbage every day, shows how urbanisation has taken a toll on the Brahmaputra. The Municipal Corporation of Dibrugarh, in the absence of a modern scientific landfill dumps its daily waste in an area called Maizan, a few metres away from the river’s bank. In monsoons, garbage from the landfill often flows into the river, polluting its water. In 2014, the Assam Pollution Control Board found out that nearly 700 households in Guwahati alone had drainage lines directly connected to the river, which carried sewage from the households to the river without any treatment. Continuous disposal of untreated sewage has rendered many parts of the Brahmaputra contaminated.

Oil Pollution’s Effects On The River

Oil is one of Assam’s primary economic assets. The state produces more than 4,500 metric tonnes of crude oil every year from its 100 oilfields. Oil spills are common, and over the last 10 years, more than 200 incidents of small to moderate to major oil spills have been reported in the state. Oil processing factories situated near the river banks pose major threat to the river and the state’s pollution control board documents more than 40 incidents of oil spillage from these factories in 2014-15. Oil does not dissolve in water and blocks oxygen, suffocating aquatic life in the process. Oil pollution also significantly polluted groundwater, which seeps into nearby rivers and in Assam’s case, Brahmaputra is the primary victim of such pollution.

After waste, oil is Brahmaputra’s worst enemy. Instances of oil spills in the river have increased in the past 10-15 years. We have issued warnings to several oil processing factories since 2012 and conducted regular checks to see whether they have in place all the necessary mechanisms to check oil spills. We have also approached the state government to bring in a strict law to deal with industries or factories from which oil spills directly into the river, said Hemanta Kumar Gogoi, Chairman, Assam Pollution Control Board.

Guwahati: The Prime Culprit

Guwahati’s role in Brahmaputra’s pollution is undeniable and the city has been a constant source of all sorts of pollution, causing the river significant harm. A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) study in 2012 found out that the faecal coliform bacteria level in the river water in Guwahati was 3,000 more probable number (MPN) per 100 mililitres, much more than the 2,500 that is the usual norm. The bacteriological oxygen demand (BOD) in Brahmaputra in Guwahati was worse than any tributaries. With 400 MPN per 100 ml was worse than Haridwar’s 268 per 100 ml in one of the most polluted areas of the river Ganga. Despite being Assam’s primary economic hub, Guwahati lacks a single stated-owned sewage treatment plant (STP), making matters worse for the river. River cleanup activities, though conducted under the Guwahati civic body’s watch can do little to have any effect on the river as the amount of pollution is unmatchable.

Brahmaputra receives an astounding 1,200 million litres of untreated sewage daily

Brahmaputra receives an astounding 1,200 million litres of untreated sewage daily

We conduct cleanup activities as frequently as we can, but the lack of government owned sewage treatment plants where the sewage can be directed has hurt the river badly. With the increase in population and number of houses, the amount of sewage generated has also increased. The few plants owned by oil corporations and the Forest Ministry are not capable of treating the whole city’s sewage. We have asked for a sewage treatment plant to be setup within the city vicinity so that the sewage can be treated before being disposed into the river, said an official from the Guwahati Municipal Corporation.

Breathing Life Into The River

For Brahmaputra to recover from its state of crisis, the primary requirements are STPs across the three major cities so that flow of direct sewage into the river is checked. While oil spills are an equal threat, the 2006 incident of an Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) owned refinery being slapped with a legal notice by the state Pollution Control Board shows that there are legal recourses that can be taken to tackle with the problem of oil pollution. Around 20 refineries are presently installing effluent treatment systems, which show that the oil pollution problem can be tackled, if taken seriously. Installation of STPs however is a costly affair, and has the additional problems of identifying and allotting land. There is yet to be any update from the Assam government on setting up state owned STPs exclusively for treating sewage flowing into the Brahmaputra.

The priority for the government of Assam should be to install STPs and keep a regular check on oil refineries. Local bodies have an equally important part to play with reducing waste generation and revamping existing landfills in a scientific manner. The principal source of water in Assam should not be subjected to pollution and neglect because doing so will further push the already ailing Brahmaputra towards decay.

Also Read: Assam To Set Up An Institute For Waste Management And A Department To Oversee Waste Disposal: Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal

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