Citizen Participation in River Management Process


While the role of water has changed with time, it has always been a unique resource without which the life of human beings is impossible. With the passing of time and growing complexities in the human civilizations, the role of water has evolved and become much more complicated than it was ever before. During the primitive, evolving civilization, water played three simple roles – it was needed for drinking, it had to be avoided as a natural hazard and it served as a hunting environment.

When humans became sedentary agriculturist instead of nomadic hunters and gathers, water started to play a crucial role in the development of initial civilizations as the sedentary aspect of agriculture required a steady supply of drinking water. Rivers, springs and lakes were the first sources of sustained water supply in dry seasons. It was then, as a logical sequence to series of sporadic dry seasons and dry years, with failure of crops, that the simple idea of diverting water from the nearby creek onto cultivated land evolved. Thus, irrigation was added as one of the first human technologies.

It is not surprising that the initial organized civilizations developed along the floodplains of large rivers because the understanding of alluvial flatlands along large rivers which offered the most fertile soil, easy to cultivate, led to civilizations setting up near the rivers. In a nutshell, the supply of drinking water, irrigation, defense from floods, navigation, and fishing technologies were the first contributions that water resource development played in the evolution of civilization.


Related: Urban River Management Plan

Evolution of Human Civilization

In the ancient civilizations, it was observed that the locations of water needs did not usually coincide with the places of water availability. Thus, the idea of water transport by the canals, or later by aqueducts and pipes, resulted in further progress in water resource development technology. Similarly, the discrepancy between times when water was available and times when it was needed, sooner or later led to the building the reservoirs. Too much water on the land, as a consequence either of heavy rains or flooding initiated the technology of water drainage. Water resources played an important role in the ancient civilizations of the Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese and other empires.

The Middle Ages mainly saw perfection of already existing water resource technologies. One water related development was the initial shaping of some of the basic principles of the science of hydraulics. In the modern times, the coming of the Industrial Age and industrial society was paralleled by an explosion in contributions of water resource developments to that new era and society. The Industrial Revolution could not have been carried out without supplying water to industrial plants and processes, and supply of drinking water, sewage removal and water drainage of the cities.

For the first time this revolution produced a new phenomenon – the high physical, biological and chemical water pollution of aquatic environments. In the 19th century, one source was often sufficient and most economical solution. However, when water demand became much greater than the water capacity of a source, a new concept originated – the development of multiple sources of water either simultaneously or in sequence.   Thus, the concept of comprehensive planning developed for utilization of multiple sources or of all water sources in a region.

Role of River in Indian culture

Water has enjoyed a very high status in the social and religious context of ancient Indian culture. The subject of water has been treated spiritually, philosophically, medically, cosmologically and poetically in the ancient Indian literature where water is regarded as the primordial substance from which the universe came into being. Even after thousands of years, the rivers in India, especially Ganga and Yamuna are considered divine and capable of purifying a sinful body with a few drops of water. The rivers and river waters have been treated with great respect since ancient times. Traditionally, rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna or Narmada have been worshipped as goddesses.

The focal point of social, cultural and religious rituals in Hinduism has been water. A lot of importance has been attached to the bath (snana) in Indian mythology which is mandatory for participation in any important religious occasion. A dip in holy rivers is considered an essential part of Hindu culture, especially on specific occasions which are considered to have a cosmobiological effect on the human body.  One such great Indian festival is Maha Kumbha or Great Kumbha which is celebrated in a cycle of 12 years, where millions assemble and have a dip in the waters of the sacred rivers. Water festivals are also celebrated in several other ways in different parts of India.

Change in River related values

While the river has always been a part of people’s life, it has been observed over the past 150 years or so, this connection has been severed. The change happened sometime during the colonial rule, when the idea of tapping rivers was introduced. Colonial intervention transformed seasonally inundated floodplains into irrigation sites involving construction of barrages and weirs. But colonial hydrology could not come to terms with the idiosyncrasies of Indian rivers. Filled with sand and sediment, most of them refused to flow between banks. While things continued to work in similar fashion, people lost the spiritual connect with the rivers.

Today many people grow into adults without having seen a river in its full glory. Many of the mighty rivers have been reduced to a stream. However, a lot of people still venerate rivers. In fact, the pilgrim gathering to sites associated with the big rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Brahmaputra, seem to be growing over the years. But there is a discord between such ritual reverence and the ways we treat our rivers. Almost every pilgrimage adds to the trash burden on rivers. Many of our rivers have turned into actual sewers. Some of them are toxic cesspools. There cannot be a bigger loss.

Approximately 75% of urban waste in India ends up in the country’s rivers, and unchecked urban growth across the country combined with poor governance means the problem is only getting worse. This situation has arisen despite the huge investments made by subsequent governments in cleaning the rivers. As a result, both, our survival and that of rivers is at stake. According to the CSE, approximately 75 to 80 percent of the river’s pollution is the result of raw sewage, industrial runoff and the garbage thrown into the river and it sums up to over 3 billion liters of waste per day. About 20 billion rupees, has been spent on various cleanup efforts (Misra, 2010).

About River Yamuna

One of the most polluted tributaries of the river Ganga is the Yamuna River. It is the largest tributary of the Ganga River in North India. Its total length is around 1370 km. River Yamuna originates from the Yamunotri Glacier of Uttar Kashi, Uttarakhand. Yamuna flows through the states of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, before merging with the Ganges at Rudraprayag. World famous cities like Delhi, Mathura and Agra lie on the banks of river Yamuna. The Yamuna river is extensively worshipped by devotees in the country. A few centuries ago, it evoked the Mughals to build one of their most magnificent monuments; the Taj Mahal on its bank; but today it has been reduced to a pale and stinking drain.

Yamuna River passing through 22 km in the city of Delhi was once described as the lifeline of the city, but today it has become one of the dirtiest rivers in the country. According to the CPCB, the water quality of Yamuna River falls under the category “E” which makes it fit only for recreation and industrial cooling, completely ruling out the possibility for under- water life (The Hindu as cited in Misra, 2010). The pollution of the Yamuna River from domestic discharges from cities like Delhi, Ghaziabad, Noida, Faridabad, Mathura and Agra has rendered the river unfit for any use. The pollution in the Yamuna River is continuously escalating and the river water has become unfit for any use. There are serious water quality problems in the settlements using Yamuna River as a source of their water and the Yamuna is under serious threat from unprecedented escalation in urbanization and industrialization (Misra, 2010).

River Yamuna

The pollution of this river has led the researchers to declare that the Yamuna is ‘about to die’ (Misra, 2010 as cited in Maurya, 2020). Delhi-NCR, the national capital region, generates approximately 76 per cent of the total pollution load in the Yamuna (PTI 2018), effectively turning the river into a ‘sewage drain’ (Datta 1992 as cited in Maurya, 2020). Delhi treats about 66 per cent of total sewage generated by its urban area and the untreated sewage mostly finds its way into the rivers or other surface water bodies.

Importance of Citizen Participation

Prevention of Yamuna River pollution cannot be achieved without public participation. If rivers are to be managed sustainably, and the potential to resolve conflicts of use realized, the general public must be more involved in their management. Effective community engagement in river management has often failed to secure social outcomes either because involvement has been restricted to a small circle of influential stakeholder groups, or because of institutional barriers which leads to over rely on scientific information.

One of the key challenges of river management is that rivers have often been modified so extensively over a period of decades or centuries, that communities have effectively become disconnected from them. Re-imagining rivers may thus entail going beyond participation into a deeper process which can set episodic plan production within more continuous practices that engage with sustainable living (Collins et al. 2005, Pedler et al. 2006 as cited in Selma, et. al. 2010). This can potentially lead to creation of new knowledge, acquisition of technical and social skills, development of trust and relationships, negotiation, and collective action (Muro and Jeffrey 2008, Walker et al. 2006 Selma, et. al. 2010).

Also Read:


  • House, M.A. (1999) Citizen Participation in water management, Sci. Tech., Vol. 40 (10), pp.125-130
  • Maurya, N. (2020) River Yamuna: Deteriorating Water Quality & its Socio-economic Impact voices from the ground, University of Chicago
  • Misra, A.K. (2010), A River about to Die: Yamuna, Water Resource and Protection, Vol. 2, pp. 489-500
  • NIUA (2021), Strategic guidelines for making river-sensitive master plans, Delhi
  • Petts, J. (2006) Managing public engagement to optimize learning: reflections from urban river restoration, Human Ecology Review, 13 (2), pp. 172-181
  • Selman, P. et. al. (2010) Re-connecting with a Recovering River through Imaginative Engagement, Ecology and Society, 15 (3): 8

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