River pollution, which results from: industrial, mineral, agricultural and watercraft wastes; sediment and erosion; oil and hazardous substances spillage; and human littering, is a major source of pollution. Illnesses, both mild and severe, result from this pollution and unless something is done to clean up the world's rivers, these sources of usable water and reserves for human recreation may well soon be unusable.
Pollution in north eastern China (Huai, Hai and Huang Ho/Yellow Rivers) means that some 70 percent of the river lengths are so polluted that the water cannot be used unless it is first treated. The situation is similar in the Subernarekha basin in India with serious implications for food security/livelihoods and public health.
The River Ganges, faced in 1985 with a $250 million antipollution campaign, is befouled by chemical wastes, human excrement, cremated bodies, and cattle carcasses. Faithful Hindus bathe daily in it and drink its water, thus making themselves susceptible to various diseases, the two most common of which are gastrointestinal disorders and infectious hepatitis. (They believe it the physical manifestation of the Almighty and so spiritually pure that it cannot be polluted.) Specially bred snapping turtles (that eat what is left of the corpses but do not nip at live bathers) are part of the cleanup programme.
All the main rivers of Russia – including the water basins of the Volga (Kosarikov), Don, Kama, Kuban, Oka and Obj – were in 1992 calculated to have between 10 and 100 times the permitted viral and bacterial levels.
In the Volga basin, where pollution levels have caused high chloroform levels, water pollution is linked to decreasing longevity.
In strict economic terms, the advantages of cleaning up rivers and lakes are impressive. For example, the World Bank calculated a 30% rate of return on an $80-million investment aimed at cleaning up the Tiete River, which flows through the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The stench from the river is so strong that land along its banks has become almost valueless. Pollution abatement will make a large section of Sao Paulo healthier and more livable, and it will restore highly desirable land in the heart of the city.