River water quality in India did not improve during COVID lockdowns: CSE

India has 39 glaciers and water bodies that are melting fast and have recorded more than 40 per cent increase in water levels since 2009. The states at high risk are Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir.

In October 2020, 136 glaciers had indicated an increase in area by 20 per cent over the 2009-levels, putting other states like Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim and West Bengal at risk.

These statistics—brought to light in an e-publication released on World Environment Day by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)—underline the ever-present and growing danger melting glaciers pose as climate change alters the natural balance violently and drastically. State of India’s Environment in Figures 2021, as the e-publication is titled, is an annual compendium of data and statistics on key issues of environment and development.

The report also busts the popular belief that the pandemic has been universally good for rivers. It says, “The water quality of India’s 19 major rivers did not improve significantly during the COVID-19 lockdown.

While Ganga and four other rivers became dirtier, the water quality in another seven rivers remained unchanged. Only four of the rivers showed a 100 per cent compliance with the primary water quality criteria for outdoor bathing during pre-lockdown and lockdown period.”

Releasing the e-book, CSE director general Sunita Narain said: “There is drama in numbers, especially when these numbers give you a trend—are things getting better or worse. It is even more powerful when you can use the trend to understand the crisis, the challenge and the opportunity.”

Says Richard Mahapatra, managing editor of Down To Earth, “Forewarned is forearmed. We must pay heed to these statistics and monitor at-risk glaciers closely to avoid a repeat of disasters like the ones in Kedarnath in 2013 and Chamoli in 2021.”

Says Narain about the publication: “In an age when the quality of data available to us is usually poor—it is either missing, unavailable publicly or of questionable quality—a collection like this can be immensely helpful, especially for journalists. Improving the quality of data can only happen when we use it for policy. Take the case of the ongoing pandemic. Just consider how we have suffered in this past year because we do not have sufficient or accurate data on tests, or the number of deaths, or serological surveys, or genomic sequencing of the variants. In each case, data would have been (and is) critical for policy making.”

She adds: “Data collection is important—it is part of the art of governance—but it is equally important that entire data sets are shared and worked upon so that they can be critiqued and through this process used and improved upon.”