Hundreds of thousands of tourists flood into the city of Agra, India, every year to see the gleaming marble of the Taj Mahal, a site immaculately kept since its completion in 1653. Emperor Shah Jahan, who had the Taj Mahal built as a tomb for his wife, kept the reflecting pools filled with water from the sacred Yamuna River that flows just meters from the Taj Mahal’s northern walls. During that time, royal visitors to the tomb could enjoy watching egrets fish among reeds and children play in the pristine waters. Today, tourists are quick to turn away from the black, lifeless waters of the Yamuna.
Ashwini Kumar Mishra, the cheery priest of a small Hindu temple and native of Agra, has taken up the mantle to fight for the Yamuna as the Mid Lower Yamuna Riverkeeper. Government incompetence and corruption, coupled with law-breaking, profit-driven industry, have defiled the Yamuna’s sacred waters almost to the point of oblivion. He, along with his congregation and volunteers, has been working for years to spread awareness about water pollution and to pressure the local government to take necessary action on the Yamuna.
In 2010, Mishra succeeded, through petitions and peaceful protests, in forcing the local government to begin construction on a series of lagoons that serve as a natural treatment system for sewage in western Agra. Before his campaign, thousands of gallons of raw sewage would empty straight into the Yamuna before flowing past the Taj Mahal.
“This is what the entire waste canal looked like before 2010,” Mishra said, pointing to the head pond of the treatment system. It was black and rank, an open sewer for the surrounding communities. But as Mishra walked me along a dirt path that follows the snaking lagoons, the stench was replaced by an earthier, wetland smell.
Three years on, the lagoons form a six kilometer network of thriving wetlands. As Mishra gave us a tour of the first three kilometers, I saw dozens of bird species, including a kingfisher and a peacock—India’s national bird—and heard the steady hum of a thriving insect population. In several of the lower lagoons, fish broke the water’s surface as they came up to feed on insects.
Still, this is only a small piece to the puzzle. The Yamuna, the largest tributary of the Ganges River in northern India, is an extremely sick river. Running 1,376 kilometers (855 mi) from its origin in the Himalayas, the Yamuna is depended upon by tens of millions of people for water.
Even though Mishra organizes numerous riverside cleanup events with thousands of attendees, many of whom are devotees at his temple, the Yamuna’s riverbed is parched in many places, blanketed with trash, debris and illegal laundry operations. What remains of the Yamuna’s once mighty flow is a black, noxious stream that offers little comfort to the livestock, children and stray dogs that can be seen wading through it on a hot afternoon.
“It used to be as wide as several superhighways and now it is barely as wide as a two lane road,” said one of Mishra’s friends, a native of Agra. “We used to swim in there as children, whole packs of us. Now only the poor children swim in there to bathe … and they don’t know any better about the health risks.”
Industrial pollution and sewage are immediate problems, but much larger issues sit upstream: dams and diversions. These are especially complex problems as India tries to feed and power its burgeoning population.
In India’s capital, New Delhi, north of Agra on the Yamuna, Minakshi Arora, the Mid Upper Yamuna Riverkeeper, and her husband, Kesar Singh, the Lower Yamuna Riverkeeper, face similar challenges. The couple, devoted water activists, also spend their time running the Hindi regional section of India Water Portal, a web-based interactive platform covering topics related to water management challenges and offering practical solutions for daily water-related issues.
Arora and Singh took me to a stretch of the Yamuna located between two thermal power plants in the south of New Delhi. A small barrage sits under a bridge crossing the Yamuna and the overflow spills down a modest three foot drop. The black water is so heavily polluted that it froths up into little foam icebergs that continue downstream. Unfortunately for clean water advocates in New Delhi, this part of the Yamuna contains little fresh water to begin with. Farther upstream, a series of large barrages divert most of the water towards agricultural and industrial use. The flow that enters this length of the Yamuna is composed almost entirely of untreated wastewater from 16 massive pipes that carry the city’s sewage.
After trekking along this stinking stretch of the Yamuna for several kilometers in the scorching heat, the three of us took a seat in the shade near a highway turnoff. Every minute or so, a car would pull up and a passenger would take a plastic bag of trash out of their trunk. Some would walk over to the river embankment and hurl the trash, still in the bag, directly into the river. Others would wait for a half-naked man to come up the embankment from his boat and do the deed for them in exchange for several rupees.
“See the high fence they built along that bridge,” said Kesar, pointing up to a 10 foot wall of mesh wire that ran the entire span of the bridge, “they built that so people would stop throwing trash bags out of their car windows into the river.”
“Throwing organic waste into the sacred Yamuna River for it to wash away is an old tradition among Hindus,” Arora explained to me back in the bustling heart of New Delhi, “But now much of the waste is inorganic and doesn’t degrade. It is also traditional for people to dispose of bodies in the river. Now the river hardly flows and the population has exploded. So the river can no longer serve as it did once. But traditions stick and people keep defiling the Yamuna. Government campaigns to curb this have had little effect.”
Another well-known river activist, Sudhirendar Sharma, sat down with me over chai tea and told me about Balbir Singh Seechewal, a famed river activist in the state of Punjab. In 2007 Seechewal initiated a campaign to clean the Kali Bein, a 160-kilometer-long stream sacred to Sikhs, with the help of thousands of community members. Encroachment by farmers, silt deposition and pollution from wild growth had virtually obliterated the Kali Bein. But under Seechewal’s leadership, volunteers dredged the stream bed and cleaned the stream bank. Under pressure from the movement, towns along the stream’s course stopped dumping raw sewage into it. The government of Sultanpur Lodhi, the largest city the Kali Bein runs through, agreed to build a sewage treatment plant for the urban waste fouling the waters. The Kali Bein’s transformation was stunning and Seechewal continues his fight for clean water to this day.
Sharma told me this story to highlight the importance of victories on smaller water bodies in India. Because the issues facing large rivers such as the Yamuna are so colossal, and almost impossible to remedy without a concerted, multi-year effort by the government, he recommended focusing on smaller rivers and streams where more tangible victories might be won.
I was saddened to see the state of some of India’s most sacred waterways up close, but I was also encouraged to meet such passionate activists that are working to change the status quo. Indeed, as Waterkeeper Alliance and other domestic and international environmental organizations continue to support the work of clean-water activists in India and across the rest of Asia, I am hopeful that change will come, if slowly, and people will once again be able to enjoy their right to swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters.
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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