Thames restorer's advice for cleaning the Yamuna

Have a vision for the whole river basin first


Neha Sethi | February 22, 2010

Robert Oates, director of Britain’s Thames River Restoration Trust
Robert Oates, director of Britain’s Thames River Restoration Trust

Robert Oates, director of Britain’s Thames River Restoration Trust (TRRT), a charity dedicated to improving the river and its tributaries, was in Delhi recently. Oates spoke to Governance Now on his experience of cleaning up the Thames and its relevance to the Yamuna. Edited excerpts:

What is the role of the government in cleaning up a river?
To manage a river, we need a powerful organisation and that is where the government has to take the lead. It needs to involve the local community and business in developing a vision and a plan for the river. Do people want to use all the water to grow food or for industry or for navigation purposes or to fish from it? As the population is growing, demands from rivers are also growing, so compromises have to be made. If the society cannot agree in a peaceful way, compromises will be made through aggression and a fight for resources. The government needs to ensure social equity and environmental justice in these cases. The mistake that we did with the Thames was that we spent 50 years arguing what should be done and the situation worsened. All stakeholders need to agree on at least something and then take up adaptive management and learn as they do it. The government has the power, the legislative tools and the enforcement power. So it has to take the lead.

Can industry also play a role in cleaning up a river?
Industry has been polluting rivers and has been a part of the problem, so it can help in cleaning up and become a part of the solution. Big companies around the world are doing corporate social responsibility activities to show that they are giving something back to the society. Thames Rivers Restoration Trust has got a 300,000 pounds grant from Royal Sun Alliance, a global insurance company to develop a natural flood management project on the Thames in the east of London.

What role should the civil society play?
People need to be involved in designing as well as implementing the plan. The government should find a way of involving citizens. After all, it is the citizens who pay for the river, either through direct taxes or indirectly through the price they pay for industrial goods that use water, and for agricultural products, that use water. If you want them to pay willingly for all of these, then involve them in what is being done. In the case of Thames, it was the government’s environmental agency that took the lead in preparing a plan.

For civil society, it’s a two-way process. My organisation uses communication and awareness campaigns to encourage people to join and support the cause. I am a member of the consultative committee for the Thames river plan. I take part in their discussions and tell them that I represent 50,000 people who want this particular thing to be done. Non-governmental organisations can be intermediaries and representatives. They can inform the government and industry on what people want.

What role can technology play in cleaning up a river?
We have spent over a billion pounds in the last 20 years to clean up the Thames. We used expensive chemical water treatment plants, but now these things are becoming very costly. The price of chemicals has been going up. Expensive chemical water treatment plants also use up a lot of energy, thereby contributing to climate change. So now we will try to use more natural systems. The wetland system developed in Jaipur to clean up the Mansagar lake can be used for 100 years. A natural method helps reduce climate change and cools the atmosphere.

If you were to clean up the Yamuna, how would you go about it?
The first thing will be to produce a vision for the whole river basin and then take it to the government, industry, municipal corporation, farmers, fishermen and to whoever uses the river and ask them what should be done to achieve it. What kind of river do we want in the next 20 years? There shouldn't be any arguments on what has been done previously. NGOs should produce their vision and take it to all the stakeholders who will help them to achieve it. It should not be a legal but a voluntary thing. It worked in the case of the Thames. Preparing vision documents to clean rivers has worked in many other countries like China, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico.

There needs to be a smart way of using water and sharing it. Recycling waste water and promoting dry crops are some of the solutions. What I have seen of the Yamuna, it’s a pretty serious situation. The government could give the NGOs a small grant to cooperate with the communities to establish a vision.



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