Though we have noticed since eternity, yet plastic pollution has been one of the biggest and ever-expanding threat, out there in the oceans and rivers is growing.
Not just its accumulation on the sides of riverbanks, deltas or coastlines is smothering marine life, even the floating plastic and abandoned fishing equipment or “ghost nets” is a killer of many souls.
A recent study as per India Water Portal found that a total of 100,887 outlets of rivers and streams worldwide spread over 31,904 locations, freely emit plastic waste into the ocean.
This alone contributes around 1.0 (0.8 to 2.7) million tonnes into the serene marine environment.
This becomes extremely troubling and puzzling when about 1000 rivers across the planet account for more than 80 percent of global plastic emissions into oceanic waters annually, with most of this litter coming in from small urban rivers which host the most ‘unsettled’ population thrives on its banks.
UNEP’s 2020 CounterMEASURE project with funding from Japan tracks and survey the alleged movement of plastics in Asia and the Pacific, particularly in Ganges and Mekong rivers hosting one of the highest population densities in the region.
In India, the project operating in Haridwar, Agra, and Prayagraj along the Ganges has helped to identify the centers for plastic accumulation and leakage hotspots.
When this project was undertaken in three North Indian cities, it was found that only 10%-25% of the generated plastic waste got littered that was seemingly not subjected to recycling or any further disposal methods.
Much of this litter, that ends up clogging the India’s most revered river, composes of multilayer plastic packaging, disposable bottles and cutlery, nylon sacks, and polythene bags.
Fishing in these rivers systems provide an important way of livelihood and nutrition for a greater proportion of population living closer to these areas.
Due to several species being confined to this region, this is an important biodiversity hotspot.
Under human influence, already many of these areas are under extreme pressure such as dam construction, habitat degradation, pollution etc., discharge of plastics additionally degrades it.
Where is India in the race of most riverine polluting countries?
India stands second amongst the top 20 countries having high proportion of riverine plastic emissions nationally as well as globally.
Based on the evidences drawn from several studies, Indus, Brahmaputra and the Ganges rivers carry and drain most of plastic debris in India which when added to 10 other topmost rivers, leak nearly 90 per cent plastics into the sea globally.
The Indus River system is the carrier of second highest quantity of plastics to the sea, while the Ganga-Brahmaputra River system makes it the sixth highest in the world.
The study by the name ‘Riverine plastic pollution from fisheries: Insights from the Ganges River system’, has informed that Ganga is one of the 14 identified continental rivers where over a quarter of global waste is dumped.
Why this irresponsible discard of plastic waste is compounding threat to Ecosystem?
This litter flowing unrestricted into rivers are strings (41.2 percent) followed by nets (40.2 percent) ranging from average mesh-sizes from 1 mm to 130 mm, ropes (10.1 percent), floats and lines.
Small mesh size in the nets discarded capture the juvenile fishes, deleting the very basic trophic levels of food and reducing sustainability of fisheries and entangles critical ecosystem species like Gangetic River dolphins.
While most of these are made of Nylon, other materials are PCT, high density polyethylene etc. and most of these nets are discarded every six months or so.
This abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear causes danger to biodiversity in the vicinity of the Ganges and then further get deposited into the oceans once the water gets drained.
Macroplastics (larger than 5 mm in size) affect surface temperatures and alter the optical properties of water columns, thereby causing climate change.
While the microplastics, not even visible to a human eye, tend to have bigger and long-lasting impacts on water biomes. They can lead to antimicrobial resistance as they support the formation of strong microorganisms.
Known to bring all sorts of contaminations (as carrier) to water bodies including the heavy and toxic metals, its minimum amount can trigger lethal battle of survival.
They can travel not only in waters, rather they enter into human bodies through fishes and other sea foods.
What happens is that these sea animals perceive microplastics as phytoplankton (the food producing algae) and consume in order to gain energy but end up entering into bigger food webs.
Alone, Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna belt pours 1 billion–3 billion microplastic particles into the Bay of Bengal.
ICAR’s fisheries Institute has estimated around 100-400 microplastic particles in every single kg of river sediment across seven locations in Ganga, including the highly diverse and sensitive estuarine areas.
Are plastics only found in Ganga or other Indian rivers too?
A number of studies specific to several Indian rivers have repeatedly drawn attention over this menace. Sabarmati river in Gujrat, Adyar river in Chennai and even other rivers originating in the western ghats share the same fate.
A team member of the project explains: “We are finding microplastics in our seas, our rivers and lakes, groundwater, and even drinking water sources. But there is no harmony between researchers’ efforts when it comes to work on microplastics”.
“There is scope for connects to be made between scientists, and a need for mutual sharing of knowledge if we are to tackle this huge problem of microplastics contaminating the natural world.”
Beauty of this whole scenario is that this Nature-hurting act can at least be reduced if proper awareness campaigns are run.
According to WWF 2020 report, at least 68% of marine biodiversity has already been lost in last 5 decades. While catching the fishes for food, crabs, crocodiles, dolphins, otters, rays, sawfishes, sharks, snakes, turtles get caught unnecessarily.
Urgent targeted as well as practical measures are required to be undertaken and imbibed in the fishing industry. Basic interventions to control the plastic flow in upper riverine areas and also along its path, can help lessen this debris load.
How can one possibly track such vast and uninterrupted flow of plastics in veins of India?
The National Productivity Council and UNEP combined the physical surveys of geographical areas with Geographical Information System mapping for every city to draw out final land and drainage topologies long with human land-use patterns prevalent there.
An expert associated with CounterMEASURE explains: “Each clean-up session at a hotspot required at least 40-50 volunteers and safai karamcharis from the local municipality to work for an entire day to collect, segregate, and pack the plastic waste for further analysis at our laboratories”.
These clean-up and awareness drives paired with surveys were conducted in scientific manner with clearly marked grids across the city.
Alone 17 leakage hotspots were found in Haridwar, including the vacant lots and open drains flowing in the river. In Agra, 10 tonnes–30 tonnes of plastic waste could be recovered from nine hotspots.
Most of this plastic was sourced from the slums where garbage collection was poor. In Prayagraj, this quantity becomes eight tonnes per day.
CSIR-IICT (Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) is working alongside Clean-Seas India pvt. Ltd. To achieve a better waste plastic conversion technology based on Indian needs.
Reducing the plastic waste into useful product, may aid in controlling the country’s progressing plastic waste streams.
“The partnership with Clean-Seas shall bring out a promising solution that will have an edge over current technologies and will go a long way towards addressing this global crisis”.
“Clean energy is essential for improving the health of our planet, and collaboration such as this will lead the way to a cleaner and more energy secure environment.”
Plastics in world waters:
We have commonly heard of plastics encircling within ocean gyres (the loops formed due to water currents).
Researches on marine ecosystems have shown how rivers act like highways to transport nearly 0.4 to 4 million metric tonnes of plastic waste from human habitations to the oceans.
But this new report drafts an even more complicated picture. The world barely knew clearly about all that plastic lying in oceans and ocean floors, now we are being told about such pollution in riverine ecosystems too.
While the world’s largest carbon sinks may stop functioning like one, as per the IPCC AR6 with increasing climate change, its important that before any further time is lost, we began protecting our rivers: the sustainer of lives and livelihoods.
Rivers provide a sense of joy and freedom for one can relate its free flow with one’s life dynamics.
While the perception may vary from people to people, society to society, a river’s existence is indispensable. Nature’s own resources can only help us fight Nature’s perils.
Rivers have given respective identities to every civilization of the world. We should remember that by conserving Rivers, we are protecting our very own fragile existence.