Water Pollution in IndiaIndia is infamous for its heavily polluted air. However, with up to 80% of its water contaminated, water pollution in India is just as prevalent and dangerous. Polluted waterways affect the standard of living of many Indian families, especially those within impoverished communities. Additionally, contaminated water creates unsustainable environments for aquatic life. Toxic waste such as discarded plastic and domestic sewage is damaging the fishing industry, which makes up a large portion of India’s economy. In an effort to combat water pollution, the Indian state of Kerala has started an initiative to recycle ocean plastic into materials for road construction, saving the jobs of fishermen and protecting the environment.

Water Pollution’s Impact on Livelihoods

Urban areas in India generate approximately 62,000 million liters per day (MLD) of sewage water. With the capacity to only treat 23,277 MLD, more than 70% of the sewage in urban areas does not receive treatment. The untreated waste often ends up in nearby water bodies such as the River Ganges, one of 10 rivers accounting for “90% of the plastic pollution that ends up at sea.”

Because of the water pollution, India’s rivers are in a dire state and citizens suffer health and economic impacts. The pollutants entering the water leave it contaminated and unsafe to consume. In 2018, more than 163 million people in India did not have a source of safe drinking water, leading to people relying on rivers for drinking water.

The polluted water also affects the fish that rely on healthy bacteria to survive. As a result, incidents of mass fish deaths are increasing at an alarming rate. Without fish in India’s waterways, millions of people will be out of work. As of 2020, India ranks third globally in fishery production and the fishing industry employs more than 145 million people.

Small-scale fisheries, which supply 55% of the total fish production, are critical for reducing poverty and food scarcity in local communities. Freshwater fisheries also help improve water quality and soil conditions on land, positively aiding agriculture. For this reason, water pollution in India is harmful to the agriculture and aquaculture industries.

Repurposing Plastic Pollution

Concerned for their futures, fishermen in Kerala, India, are taking part in an environmental initiative to keep their waters clean. In 2017, the local government put out an order to minimize water pollution. Fishermen in Kerala have answered the call. Kerala relies substantially on the fishing industry, which brings in approximately $14 million in revenue.

The government passed the Suchitwa Sagaram (Clean Sea) project, requiring harbor authorities to distribute nylon bags to fishermen so that they can store the plastic pollution that gets caught in their nets instead of throwing it back into the sea. Construction companies buy the collected plastic in shredded form and use it to build new roads. Cleaning and sorting the gathered plastic provides jobs to local women in Kerala.

When mixed with asphalt, the plastic component makes India’s roads more resistant to intense heat. In addition to helping the environment, the process is saving India money by reducing the cost of building roads by “8–10% per kilometer of road paved with plastic as compared with a conventionally built road.” Every kilometer of road utilizes about 1 million plastic bags. As of April 2021, the project has collected about 176,000 pounds of plastic and has built 135 kilometers of road, creating many employment opportunities in the process.

Fighting Poverty and Environmental Degradation

Properly developed roads contribute to economic growth. By building and maintaining roads to rural communities, India can ensure the economic development of these areas. Roads to rural communities improve access to education and reduce costs for transportation, trade and production. However, funding for rural infrastructure is usually low on the list of budgetary priorities for the Indian government. Repurposing ocean plastic for use in building materials reduces the cost of roads while simultaneously combating water pollution in India, thus reducing poverty overall.

– Samantha Fazio
Photo: Flickr

Plastic Pollution and Poverty in the SundarbansFrom space, the “Beautiful Forest,” or the Sundarbans, looks like a dreamscape — dark mangrove forests nestled among a lacy lattice of luminous streams that snake into the Bay of Bengal. Zooming closer reveals grimmer realities. The Sundarbans are a part of the world’s largest delta, the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, covering most of Bangladesh and large amounts of West Bengal in India. Home to more than 100 million people, it is one of the most densely populated regions globally and faces extreme poverty and plastic pollution.

Fringed by the large arc of the Bay of Bengal, the coastal population here relies on the ocean, upstream rivers, rich delta soils, monsoons and mangrove forests for its livelihood. Primary industries are marine and freshwater fishing, rice farming and tourism. Life here teeters on a fragile balance with nature. Annual monsoons cause floods and rising ocean levels threaten to submerge the lands. However, they also bring fertility and rich aquatic life that are vital to the livelihood of millions.

A particularly grave human-made threat to this delicate coastal ecosystem is plastics. Plastics pour into the bay from upstream rivers and neighboring areas and choke the coastal lands with the locally generated waste.

Impact of Plastic Pollution in the Sundarbans

The plastic in the food supply chain gravely impacts the fishery industry of the delta region, as evident in its clogged mangroves and plastic-choked fish farms. Plastic also pollutes the population’s primary food source: fish and other aquatic life. As plastics disintegrate into fundamental particles, they make their way into the biota and eventually into humans, causing many health issues.

The area’s waste-blanketed beaches also deter tourism. Accumulations of plastic mar beautiful coastlines due to poor infrastructure and waste management.

Additionally, increasing plastic use by ever-growing populations depletes natural resources and poisons life-giving food sources. This creates conditions for poverty and unsustainable living in the Sundarbans. Reducing plastic accumulation in the ocean and coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal is critical and needing concerted, multi-pronged actions.

Addressing the Plastic Pollution Issues at the Source

Measuring and identifying pollution problems upstream, as with the National Geographic-led Ganges Sea to Source Expedition project, will be vital to deploying preventive solutions closer to their source. Projects such as this one seek to understand the plastics’ journey in the river, tracking the patterns, volumes and trajectory into the ocean. The Ganges, one of the world’s largest rivers, is a principal source of water into the Bay of Bengal and a principal source of its plastics. The Ganges and two other rivers are estimated to empty one to three billion microplastics into the Bay of Bengal each day.

Waste Management Programs

Waste management programs to reduce plastic in the ocean and neighboring coastlines are critical in this fight against poverty and plastic pollution. Such programs can include installing waterway bins and collectors in the bay and plastic collection programs in coastal areas. Such programs have the added benefit of employing local labor in building these infrastructures. However, solutions such as installing obstructive bins in the ocean have their limitations. A push to longer-term restructuring and design will be necessary while relying on short-term solutions.

Awareness and Innovative Products

Large-scale education campaigns on anti-littering and plastic-use awareness are also crucial to addressing current pollution challenges. Encouraging reuse, responsible disposal of wastes and moving to environment-friendly alternatives in daily life can help slow the current plastic pollution rates.

In the long term, establishing programs that focus on bio-friendly products and innovations offers the best route out of the current predicament. Boosting programs and research in topics that rethink current practices and modes of plastic-dependent systems can also stimulate the local economy and employment while generating viable solutions. Levying taxes to deter plastic use should also be considered within a broader governance and policy framework.

As gloomy as the Sundarbans’ current pollution circumstances seem, there are many paths to reversing plastic’s impacts in the Bay of Bengal while boosting labor in local populations with innovation, research and collective action.

– Mala Rajamani
Photo: Flickr