The Death of a River
The poisoning of the river at Alakkode was a shocking news.It is appalling that the poisoning was intentional ,and not accidental, and that truckloads of lethal pesticides were dumped in to the river by some irresponsible youth. The only good news is that an expert team from the Gwalior-based nuclear, biological and chemical wing of the Defence Ministry will study the pollution in the Rayarom river at Alakkode and help recover the pollutants from the river-bed.
The pollution of the river was first noticed when people who had bathed in the river downstream developed health problems, including exhaustion. Later, eight youths who had volunteered to recover the pesticides dumped into the river also showed signs of physical exhaustion and were taken to hospital. Personnel of the Fire and Rescue Services continued to search for the pesticide waste on Thursday. Nearly 30 bottles and packets of pesticides were recovered.
It is feared that the pollution of the river will affect the health of the people living along its banks from Rayarom to Valapattanam who use the river water for various purposes.
Six persons involved in the dumping of the pesticides have been arrested by the police. The police said that bags and bottles of pesticides, whose expiry date was over, loaded in three pick-up vans had been unloaded into the river by those arrested. The pesticides had been collected from a closed pesticides shop that has now been rented out for a new venture.
Some time back, I had written on the literacy standards of Kerala. Literacy doesn’t mean just reading alphabets. It is a shame to the people of Kerala, who boast of our literacy and education that some young people were involved in dumping the poisons in to the river. If it is not due to illiteracy, then it is a clear lack of civic sense and responsibility, and a heinous crime. This is almost same as attempted murder and should be treated the same way.
Now that some people are arrested, the same dramas which follow such sequences in Kerala will ensue. These youths will definitely be belonging to some kind of political clan or other, and their leaders will secretly start using their political power for their release. Police documents will disappear, samples will simply vanish, and ultimately when it reaches the court, I will not be surprised, if the court doesn’t find anything to implicate the criminals.
If the state has some kind of responsibility to the people, those involved should be punished to the maximum possible, to set an example. It is saddening that most of our criminals escape on the loopholes of our outdated judicial jargon.
In this context,it is worthwhile to review the situation of our rivers and the extent of damages by pesticides in the state.
Kerala is one among the most thickly populated regions in the world and the growth rate amounts to 14 % per decade. Consequently the rivers of Kerala have been increasingly polluted from the industrial and domestic waste and from the pesticides and fertilizer used in agriculture. Industries discharge hazardous pollutants like phosphates, sulphides, ammonia, fluorides, heavy metals and insecticides into the downstream reaches of the river. The major rivers namely Periyar and Chaliyar are apt examples for the pollution due to industrial effluents. It is estimated that nearly 260 million liters of industrial effluents reach the Periyar river daily from the Kochi industrial belt.
The river Periyar, the longest river of the state ,is considered to be the life line of Central Kerala. It originates from the Sivagiri peaks of Sundaramala in Tamil Nadu. River Periyar is gradually undergoing eco-degradation throughout its course of flow due to various anthropogenic stresses, which include indiscriminate deforestation, domestic-agricultural-industrial water pollution, excessive exploitation of resources, large scale sand mining and various interferences in the flow of water.
There are more than 30 unauthorised effluents pipes spewing toxins straight into the river from the industry. Air emissions range from acid mists to sulphur dioxide , hydrogen Sulphide, Ammonia and Chlorine gas. Wells and ponds in the region are severely contaminated as well.
Angamaly to Kochi come under the most industrialized zone of the Periyar river basin. There are over 50 large and medium industries and over 2500 small scale industries in this region. The southern branch of Marthandapuzha which cater to the needs of these industries is estimated to have a lean water flow of 8200 cum/sec which the monsoon flow is calculated as 150-250 cum/sec. The industries located in Edayar–Eloor area consumes about 189343 cum per day water from the day and discharge about 75% as used water along with large quantity of effluents and pollutants. The major types of these industries are fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and allied industries, petroleum refining and heavy metal processing, radioactive mineral processing, rubber processing units, animal bone processing units, battery manufacturers, mercury products, acid manufacturers, pigment and latex producers etc. The wide spectra of pollutants that adversely affect the natural environmental quality of the water of the river include toxic and hazardous materials such as heavy metals, phenolics, hydrocarbons, pesticides, radionuclides, ammonia, phosphates, domestic and untreated waste water.
The industrial belt of Eloor in Kerala is one of the world’s ‘top toxic hot spots’, according to international environment group Greenpeace. Unchecked pollution in the area, says an elaborate study conducted by Greenpeace, has led to people in Eloor near Kochi suffering from higher rates of death and disease. Greenpeace holds the Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL) that has been manufacturing pesticides at its Eloor plant responsible for making the industrial village a toxic hotspot.
According to an epidemiological study that Greenpeace conducted at Eloor, an island in the Periyar river, unchecked pollution from HIL has resulted in diseases like cancer, congenital birth defects, bronchitis, asthma, allergic dermatitis and stomach ulcers in the local population.
Greenpeace collected samples of water and sediments from an adjacent creek and soil from the nearby wetlands. Its detailed analysis found that the water at Eloor contained 100 organic compounds that included DDT and its metabolites, endosulfan and several isomers like hexachlorocylcohexane, a persistent pesticide. It says the chances of the residents of Eloor inhabitants contracting cancer are 2.85 times higher than similar toxic areas in India.
It said children face 2.63 times higher risk of malformation due to congenital and chromosomal aberrations. Chances of death due to an accident are 2.7 times higher. Chances that children may die due to birth defects have increased 3.8 times. Death due to bronchitis at Eloor is up by 3.4 times. Death due to asthma is up by 2.2 times, the study stated.
Open wells of Kerala are under the threat of bacteriological comtamination. About 60% of the population in the State relies on ground water for drinking. Studies have shown that faucal contamination is present in 90% of drinking water wells. The open character of the wells, conventional maintenance habits, use of buckets and rope to draw water, kitchen wastes and pit latrines with average family load factor (5 members) at a distance of less than 5 meters from wells are some of the factors contributing to the bacteriological contamination. Ground water contamination due to industrial pollution has been reported from places of Kochi (eastern part of Aluva), Palakkad and some parts of Kollam and Kozhikode.
“We are watching our river die. We’re all like the prople waiting pensively by the death-bed of a loved one. The state, which has all the powers to save the river is indifferent. People have lost faith in the system,” says V J Jose, the Periyar River Keeper appointed by Greenpeace India.
The State Fisheries Department recently ordered a probe by the PCB to find out those responsible for polluting the rivers in Ernakulam district. Interestingly it has apparently ignored the report of the Greenpeace submitted to the State Health Department last September listing industrial units responsible for increasing toxicity in the Periyar. It’s high time the state woke up from its slumber and took immediate action. As Manu Gopalan, a former campaigner with Greenpeace India puts it
“A poisoned river means a dying people”
1. Greenpeace Report on Pollution in Periyar - Aditi Wanchoo, Greenpeace India
2. Status Report on Periyar - krpcds.org/report/Joseph%20M.L.pdf.