Clean Tech

River-to-sea pollution: Finding ways to keep our waterways plastic-free

Preeti Mehra | Updated on May 16, 2021

Monumental hazard: Microplastic sampling at the Yamuna, as of part of the UNEP-led CounterMEASURE project

A global UN initiative takes a deep dive into reducing debris in the Ganga Basin

In November 2019, when a research team, on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for the first time fished out marine debris in cities along the Ganga Basin for its plastic pollution project CounterMEASURE (CM), it found the following in a sample from Agra: 62 per cent of coloured, white and black polythene bags; 12 per cent multilayer large- and medium-sized packets of chips, namkeens, biscuits and other snacks; five per cent of packing material used for water and milk; three per cent of disposable plastic cups and glasses; four per cent of monolayer plastic packaging used for food and detergents. The rest was ritual material, tobacco and paan masala wrappers, and others.

Pretty much the same trash was found in varying percentages during the microplastic sampling surveys in Haridwar and in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), where the Yamuna flowing through Agra meets the Ganges. Waste audits were conducted at 19 sites till early March 2020, and about 1,436 kg of plastic waste was picked up with the assistance of 710 volunteers. Mumbai was also included in the first phase.

Meticulously, the team collected this primary data and carried out a visual inspection of illegal dumping sites, littering spots and the waste accumulated at artificial barriers in the waterways. The plastic waste audit threw up a lot of information. The researchers found that each city behaves in a different way. About 80 per cent of leakages come from land-based sources. They analysed the waste using different techniques including geographic information system modelling of city areas, looked at their waste practices, their efficiencies, and the extent of leakages. They identified the hot spots, did a ground verification, studied the complete plastic value chain, detected leakage points and, based on this, formulated strategies for the first phase or CM-1.

Global effort

CM or ‘Promotion of Countermeasures against Marine Plastic Litter in Southeast Asia and India’ is a global initiative that started in mid-2019 and is expected to continue till the middle of next year. Funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Japan and implemented by UNEP, it focuses on how we can reduce land-based plastics entering the waterways.


In India, it hopes to build solutions for the 2,525-km-long Ganga river, which originates crystal clear from the Himalayas but, along the way, turns into one of the five most polluted rivers in the world. Revered in the country, it is unfortunately also one of the ten rivers responsible for around 95 per cent of the plastic entering the oceans. Nearly 79 per cent of all plastic produced ends up in landfills across the world or pollutes the air, soil, water, and rivers and oceans.

The CM project, therefore, is trying to find solutions to reduce plastic pollution in the Ganga along with the trans-boundary Mekong and selected rivers in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The objective is to generate knowledge regarding plastic pollution leakage in the Asia-Pacific, so that policy implementation in the region can be bettered. “We’re using advanced and scalable methodology and tools to beat plastic pollution,” says Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste and Air quality, Asia and the Pacific Office, UNEP.

Involving local stakeholders

In respect of the Ganga, the initiative expects to generate scientific knowledge and disseminate it to policymakers, so that informed decisions are made at the national and local levels. Along with this, intensive capacity-building is being carried out for crucial stakeholders such as the boatmen who operate on the waterways, religious organisations that function at the holy ghats, urban local bodies responsible for collecting litter, rag pickers, shop owners, schoolchildren, and the media.


In the second phase or CM-2, the project has changed course a bit. It will include the downstream city of Patna and develop a mobile app for survey work. “It’s a deep dive into the knowledge generated in the first phase... UNEP and partners are expanding that analysis using exciting new models and methods like machine learning. We’re also expanding efforts to push these findings and their implications into the world, so policymakers and the public in India, regionally and globally, can take action to tackle the problem on a strong scientific footing,” explains Atul Bagai, Head, India Country Office, UNEP.

CM-2 will also research a totally different aspect of the problem — the impact of macro- and micro-plastics on migratory species. The aim is to build on data and scientific evidence on how plastic leakages in the waterways are impacting ecosystems. Among other goals, the study will concentrate on two dominant outcomes that adversely impact migratory species — entanglement and ingestion. At the latter end of the programme, the researchers plan to work with fishermen and boatmen on ways to take care of fishing gear, and help them alter their perception on plastics.

Published on May 16, 2021

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