The University of Virginia has signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with the New Delhi water authority to map out an expansive, multidisciplinary prescription to rehabilitate the pollution-choked Yamuna River.
The move marks a major advance for a three-year-long river improvement project, “Re-Centering Delhi,” which was born in UVA’s School of Architecture. UVA’s Yamuna River Project now includes students and faculty members from several disciplines across Grounds, including public health, business, history, environmental sciences and politics.
The Yamuna River, which flows through New Delhi, is what environmental experts call a “dead river,” its oxygen-carrying capacity suffocated by gallons and gallons of sewage being pumped into the waterway 24 hours a day.
Architecture Professor Iñaki Alday, the director of the new pan-University project, said the importance of the work cannot be overstated. “It is one of the most pressing urban dilemmas in the world,” he said in his office in Peyton House in late August. “India is the second-biggest megalopolis in the world, the biggest capital of a democracy in the world, and the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.”
To get an idea of the gravity of the situation, Alday, the Elwood R. Quesada Professor of Architecture and a native of Spain, drew a comparison to Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River. If the Potomac were in the same state as the Yamuna today, “You could not approach the Potomac by more than 100 meters because of the unbearable smell. There would not be a single fish or any living entity in the river. There wouldn’t be birds. We would be seeing big, brown foam formations on the river and big masses of floating trash,” he said.
‘I Want to Walk the Yamuna’
The new agreement with India was signed in July, when a delegation that included Alday and Vice Provost for Global Affairs Jeffry W. Legro visited New Delhi. Alday said after seeing UVA’s Yamuna River Project presentation, India’s powerful minister for water resources, Sushri Uma Bharti, said simply, “I want to walk the Yamuna.”
That presently isn’t possible, for all of the reasons Alday enumerated. Over the next five years, UVA experts will look at the river, its shores and the land surrounding the area through several different lenses. The idea is to not just treat it simply as a water purification exercise.
“We are approaching the problem as a complex issue that has to be seen comprehensively, and that is not the way it has been approached,” Alday said. “Until now, it has been approached as a water-quality issue, or it has been approached as an environmental issue, or it has been approached as a housing issue.”
Alday said UVA is taking “the absolute lead” as a major research university contributing solutions to this huge problem. There will be a major exhibition displaying the work accomplished to date in New Delhi in March, sponsored by Bharti. The Yamuna River team will also post all of its findings to a new website for the Indian government and present a book about the first three years of UVA’s work on the river – all free of charge.
Alday said that is as it should be. “It is the role of a research institution to produce knowledge that is going to be useful, to put visions and possibilities on the table without being part of any power structure and to engage the people who are in the position to make decisions.”