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The Riverkeeper, the factories, and the daily battle to quell 170m litres of toxic effluent [Jul. 9th, 2009|03:16 pm]
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Jose is the Riverkeeper, the first in Asia. His guard is the Periyar River.

Running a jagged line across India, the river begins in the eastern state of Tamil Nadu and ends in the western port town of Cochin, where it meets the Arabian Sea. In its final few km, the path splits and curves around a series of tiny islands that make up Cochin. One of these islands is Eloor, the mere eleven square kilometres of which are home to paddy fields, traditional fishing communities, forty-two thousand people, and two hundred and forty-seven industrial factories along the river banks. Of these, one hundred and six produce chemicals. And they all pour their waste into the Periyar river - a mammoth one hundred and seventy million litres of toxic effluent per day.

Like much of Kerala, Cochin is lush. Nestled between ocean and backwaters, the ground is moist and fertile and green is everywhere: jumbles of dark leaves hanging over walkways; jade carpets over hills; bottle-green waters; emerald moss crawling over cracks. But underneath this picture-perfect scenery lurks a more sinister reality.

“The river is a coffin”, says Jose. “It may have been painted to look pretty, but inside, it is dead.”

We turn down a road leading to the industrial area and the change is palpable: the air is thick and white and stinks. Standing on the riverbank, Jose points out the dilapidated factories on the opposite side.

“That one is FACT. It is a public-sector fertilizer factory making phosphate fertilizers, liquid ammonia and endosulfan, amongst others. It was started in 1944”. A meaty plume of white smoke pours from its chimney into the air.

“And this one”, he points to the factory next to it. “This one is Travancore Cochin Chemicals. They produce caustic soda, chlorine, hydrochloric acid”. I peer at the factory through the smog. It looks ancient. I’m dubious it’s even still functioning in fact, until Jose points out the pipe at its base, spewing liquid into the river.

“There are 62 outlets like this, placed all along the river bank at Eloor. Half of them are legal and above water, like this one. The other half are illegal and under the surface – you can’t see them. We know they’re there because [Greenpeace] went down with diving equipment and identified them. We compiled a report on this and the toxicity of the water and presented it to the Government, but they’ve done nothing to stop it”.

Supported by Greenpeace, Jose has done many tests on the river water, and sediment samples have also been analysed by the Greenpeace Science Unit in the University of Exeter. They found particularly elevated concentrations of the toxic metals mercury, copper and zinc, with lead, chromium and cadmium also present. The samples were also found to contain between 27 and 39 organochlorides, plus many hydrocarbons. In the sediment taken from near the outflow pipe of one factory, Hindustan Insecticides Ltd., they also found the toxic pesticide DDT, and its related breakdown products.

A Government of India enterprise, Hindustan Insecticides Ltd is one of the few factories in the world that still manufactures DDT. It also makes endosulfan, an acutely toxic pesticide currently banned in over fifty countries. Whilst the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants banned the agricultural use of DDT worldwide, its manufacture is not illegal in India and the chemical is exported from here to African countries such as Mozambique and Eritrea for use in malaria control. Yet as a manufacturer of DDT, routine wasted discharges are to be expected, and the output is poisoning the 3.7m people who draw their water supply from this part of the Periyar.

The Greenpeace report of September 2003 stated that: “broadly, one can say that the cocktail of poisons in the air and water of Eloor affects all body-systems adversely”. DDT and its related chemicals, for example, are a problem not only because they are toxic, but because they are resistant to biodegredation and so likely to accumulate in the environment, and also in the fat reserves of the bodies they enter. One of the chemicals DDT forms when it does break down is DDE, which is associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion. Both DDT and DDE have been found to have trans-generational effects on human fertility.

In an attempt to quantify these effects, another report compared the occurrence of death and disease in Eloor with that of Pinidimana, a village in the same district with a similar population and on the banks of the same river, but upstream of the factories. Over five months, a random stratified sample of a quarter of the households in each village was surveyed by medical questionnaire with
disturbing results. The findings of an increase in disorders of people in Eloor over people in Pinidimana included:

                    Depression: 484.01%
                    Birth defects: 379.40%
                    Cancer: 285.00%
                    Infertility: 211.59%
                    Allergic Dermatitis: 202.46%
                    Stomach Ulcers: 2553.72%

, where 484.01% indicates a rate in Eloor of 4.8401 times that of Pinidimana.

Later, Jose shows me a film made in 2004 on the toxic hotspots of India. There, on screen, are the same chimneys pouring out plumes of smoke, same pipes gushing effluent five years ago as I saw that morning. That’s when it hits me: these factories run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Some have been running since before my grandparents were married. The secrets are out, the poison is known, but still the waste pours into generations of families.

In January this year, the Keralan Health Minister convened a meeting in which four of the main Eloor factories, including Hindustan Insecticides Ltd and FACT, agreed to pay the costs of supplying clean drinking water to 2144 households in the area. However, this is less than a third of the households dependent on the poisoned water. The State Government also announced a health insurance package to compensate 3000 of the affected residents, but nothing has materialised so far. And Jose says the amount of effluent is increasing all the time.

“When I inherited my home in Eloor from my father, he gave it to me with good air, and good water. But I know that when the time comes for me to give it to my children, I cannot give it with these two things that are their birthright. And that is a pattern that is happening across the whole world”.

Top left: FACT, on the banks of the River Periyar, is a constant source of air and water pollution
Middle left: The dilapidated back view of Travancore Cochin Chemicals, a chemical factory producing caustic soda, chlorine and hydrochloric acid. The gush from the outward waste pipe to the river can just be seen underneath the sloping walkway, to the left.
Bottom right: V.J. Jose, the Periyar River Keeper, has been fighting against its contamination for nearly thirty years.