Environmental issues are a major interest of Kelley's, especially pollution, climate change, deforestation, and endangered species.
The Most Polluted Rivers in the World
The solution to pollution is dilution. This has been the mantra of people who would like to think water pollution can be avoided simply by adding enough water to the muck. The trouble is, there are too many people and too many factories in the world and not enough fresh water. In fact, one of the world’s biggest problems is a lack of clean drinking water.
Then again, these rivers could simply be cleaned up.
The following article lists the ten most polluted rivers in the world. It may not include the worst—who’s to say? But all of these waterways are objectionably dirty: Some of which are so incredibly filthy you have to wonder why anybody would even go near them, much less drink from them. Yet people do so as they must because they have little or no choice. Please keep reading!
18. Rhine River
For decades the Rhine River, the largest in Western Europe, has been considered “Europe’s Public Toilet.” Water quality in the river has declined steadily because industrial wastewater, agricultural runoff and domestic sewage have been discharged into it in massive amounts since the late 1800s. For instance, in 1986, while fighting a fire in a chemical plant near Basel, Switzerland, 20 tons of toxic pesticides were accidentally dumped into the Rhine, polluting a large portion of it.
In the present day, the Rhine River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, particularly as it relates to the presence of microplastics. But climate change, which has caused extreme droughts around the world, has reduced the water level in the Rhine to historically low measurements, a problem that could soon end most traffic on the river—at which point the presence of microplastics in the water may become a moot issue!
Since 2000, an action plan created by the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine River (ICPR) has been dedicated to the cleanup of the river; its primary concept is that “clean rivers should be the backbone of a sound ecosystem.” Whether idealized goals will save the Rhine from toxic death and/or drying up completely, will certainly become public knowledge sooner rather than later!
17. Neva River
Flowing into the Baltic Sea near the city of St. Petersburg in northeastern Russian, the Neva River, though only 46 miles in length, is considered an extremely polluted river according to the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring of Russia. Located in a heavily populated area with many industries, the river is polluted by raw sewage and industrial effluent amounting to 80,000 tons per year. Oil spills are also common along this river, which, in 2008, the Federal Service of St. Petersburg announced was unfit for swimming along its entire length.
Nevertheless, some pollution cleanup is taking place on the Neva River. The cleaning of wastewater began in St. Petersburg in 1979, particularly regarding the discharge of raw sewage into the river, the level of which was supposed to be stopped completely by 2011. But as recently as May 2018, the Murzinka River, a major tributary of the Neva River, is still so polluted it often changes color to red or other colors.
16. Yamuna River
As with many sacred rivers in India, the Yamuna River has a promise: bathing in its waters frees one from the torments of death. But in certain places, you may think twice about getting near it. At the river’s source in the Himalayas, its water is clear blue, though as the river flows through heavily populated stretches on the Indo-Gangetic Plain the water becomes exceedingly polluted with sewage, municipal waste and agricultural run-off. The water is especially bad near the capital of India, New Delhi, which dumps most of its waste, including millions of liters of raw sewage, into the poor Yamuna on a daily basis. At this point, the Yamuna is essentially a running cesspool.
The Indian government is trying to clean up the Yamuna River, but its water remains stagnant for nine months of the year, reducing the flow of toxins to the Indian Ocean, and creating a situation that will be very hard to fix. One of many plans to clean up India’s rivers, the Yamuna Action Plan, a joint venture with Japan initiated in 1993, is designed to improve the water quality of the river by 90 percent. But this hasn’t happened to date and the goal remains little more than a pipe dream.
15. Yangtze River
Its headwaters located in northern Tibet, China’s Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, suffers from many types of degradation: industrial and plastic pollution, agricultural run-off, siltation, untreated manure from pig farms, industrial effluent, and sewage from municipal sources. In fact, in 2012, because of pollution, the river turned red near Chongqing. According to The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch ecological organization, the Yangtze River dumps more plastic into the ocean than any other river.
The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the river has greatly reduced biodiversity. Moreover, the construction of dams, levees and diversions along the river has cut off the outflow from numerous lakes, reducing their water quality. But since 2002 a program has been in place to reconnect these lakes to the Yangtze, increasing the flow of water throughout the Yangtze watershed, thereby reducing at least some of its water pollution.
14. River Tame
Located in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom, the River Tame is a pretty, slow-moving waterway that meanders through the bucolic countryside in England. At a distance anyway, the river doesn’t appear to be degraded, but there’s contamination lurking in its murky depths. It has some of the worst microplastic pollution in the world, according to a survey done in 2018. Toxic rain-wash from Coal-based industries around Birmingham and in the Black Country region, as well as various manufacturing operations, has damaged the river’s ecology too.
In recent decades, however, the river’s water has been passed through a series of purification lakes, a process that has cleansed the water enough so that aquatic life can survive in it. Once one of the filthiest rivers in the UK, the River Tame seems healthier today, though plastic pollution is still a major concern.
13. Jordan River
One of few sources of fresh water in a land that needs all the water it can get, the Jordan River flows from north to south through much of the Holy Land, countries such as Syria, Israel and Jordan and connects the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake, with the Dead Sea, a drying, salty terminal lake. Since most of the river’s water has been diverted for industrial, agricultural and municipal purposes, especially its lower 100 miles, what’s left of the water has succumbed to the flow of sewage, agricultural runoff and brackish water. Consequently, in 2007, the Friends of the Earth listed it as one of the 100 most polluted sites in the world.
The biggest problem with the Jordan River is that its water is quickly disappearing. Polluted or not, a river can’t survive without water, and since it’s the only source of water for the Dead Sea, that too is in danger of drying out entirely.
12. Mekong River
The third longest river in Asia, 2,700 miles in length, the Mekong River is quickly becoming one of the most polluted rivers on the planet. Its flow has been weakened considerably because of the presence of dozens of hydroelectric dams, reducing the flushing action of the river, which helps rid the land of toxins. Before the dams were built people could drink water right out of the river; now river water must be boiled before it can be consumed—a critical problem in a land where only the Mekong River provides fresh water for millions of thirsty folks! Continuous drought along the river has also reduced the river’s flow.
Poor or nonexistent sewage treatment in many towns, particularly in poor countries such as Laos and Cambodia, has also fouled the Mekong to a great degree. The Mekong is also on the list of the ten worst polluters of microplastics in the world. Businesses, factories and farms are also dumping huge amounts of industrial chemicals, domestic solvents and sewage into the Mekong, turning the water black and fetid in some areas, and destroying aquatic life, particularly fish. Such filth in the water can spread diseases to animals and people as well.
The water quality in the Mekong River will only improve if many of the countries that use its water do much more to reduce pollution and also help clean up this vast Asian waterway before it becomes little more than a running sewer and toxic waste dump.
11. Tijuana River
Although the Tijuana River is only 120 miles long, generally not more than tens of feet wide, and at times carries little water, it’s almost certainly one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Flowing north through the Tijuana River Valley, where it swings by the growing city of Tijuana, Mexico (population 1.8 million), which is responsible for most of river's pollution, the river then crosses the Mexico/US border and debouches into the Pacific Ocean.
As of 2015, when it rains, as much as 27 million US gallons of sewage are dumped every day into the Tijuana River. Toxic chemicals such as DDT, hexavalent chromium, benzene, lead and mercury can be found in the river too, as well as countless tons of tires and miscellaneous trash; and when the water dries up, the toxicity in the riverbed goes airborne for all in the area to breathe!
Will this running sewer and landfill ever be cleaned up? Between 2014 and 2016, over 400 tons of debris were removed from the river. Also, in 2020, per an agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada, $300 million dollars has been provided to abate the pollution in the Tijuana River, and at least some of this money will be allocated to the International Boundary Wastewater Treatment Plant, located in the South Bay area of San Diego, California.
10. Matanza-Riachuelo River
Located in the Buenos Aires Province of central-eastern Argentina, the Matanza-Riachuelo River (MRR) has been nicknamed the Slaughterhouse River, because many slaughterhouses and tanneries line its banks and, tragically, dump their effluent into the river, polluting this short waterway with various toxic chemicals, particularly heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, zinc, lead and copper. Raw sewage and household garbage are also added to the mess.
In 1993, President Carlos Menem presented a project designed to spend $250 million to clean up the river, but only one million was spent to rid the river of industrial wastes. Tragically, much of this money was allocated to other projects and/or pilfered by politicians. Therefore, as of December 2013, the MRR remains one of the most polluted rivers on the planet.
9. Cuyahoga River
The Cuyahoga River is famous – or infamous – for having caught fire numerous times since 1868, most recently in June 1969. Flowing through the Cleveland, Ohio area, the Cuyahoga River, because it runs through a congested urban environment, has been subjected to numerous forms of pollution, particularly industrial waste, which has made it flammable at times. Interestingly, the plight of the Cuyahoga River helped promote in the late 1960s the ecological movement across the U.S., whose motto was “Ecology Now.” This joint fervor led to passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Now 50 years after the Cuyahoga River caught fire, it seems unlikely it will do so again any time soon since cleanup programs in Ohio have improved its water quality; now it supports more than 60 species of fish. Nevertheless, it remains one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, as it empties into Lake Erie, once a very dirty body of water as well, though it supports fisheries of note in the present day.
8. Buriganga River
Also known as the Old Ganges, the Buriganga River in Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, suffers from just about every type of pollution imaginable: chemical waste from textile mills and factories of all kinds, domestic garbage, rotting fruit and vegetables, medical waste, sewage, dead animals, plastics and petroleum. In fact, the city of Dhaka dumps 4,500 tons of solid waste into the river every day. The sewage dumped into the river is a major problem as well, as about 80 percent of it is untreated.
These days, particularly near Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, the Buriganga River emits a foul smell and no aquatic life can survive in it. One way to clean up the river at least somewhat would be to increase its flow of water, but this option will be difficult since the glaciers of the Himalayas, which feed the river, are shrinking due to climate change. Of course, a better option would be to stop dumping garbage and various poisons into the river, although this option will be very costly.
7. Marilao River
The Marilao River flows through the Bulacan Province in the Philippines and eventually empties in Manila Bay. The river suffers from various forms of pollution from tanneries, textile factories, piggeries, gold refineries and municipal dumps. The high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the water are particularly worrisome, as they present a major health hazard. In fact, in places, the water in the Marilao River contains virtually no dissolved oxygen, negating aquatic life to a great degree. Therefore, the Marilao River is considered one of the 50 dead rivers in the Philippines.
Fortunately for the people of the Philippines, Greenpeace has been studying the problem of water pollution in the Philippines and produced the report “Hidden Consequences,” which could at least focus attention on the problem and perhaps persuade the Philippine government to generate funds for clean-up of the Marilao and other filthy rivers in this Pacific archipelago.
6. Sarno River
In a continent where most if not all the rivers are polluted, the Sarno River in southern Italy, near Pompeii and Naples, is widely considered the most polluted river in Europe. The upper reaches of the river near Mt. Sarno are nearly pristine, but the lower one travels in elevation, the more polluted the river becomes, until it’s covered by oily scum and chemical foam. Fouled by industrial and agricultural wastes and plenty of urban garbage, the Sarno River is considered the primary source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the Bay of Naples. Interestingly, PAHs are the greatest source of organic pollutants.
Encouragingly, Italy plans to clean up the Sarno and other rivers in the area. In fact, remedial dredging began on the Sarno River in the early 2000s, so perhaps at least some of the pollution will be mitigated, if not eliminated, in the coming years and decades.
5. Mississippi River
Pollution of rivers is also widespread in the United States. The mighty Mississippi River, also called the Big Muddy, because its waters are generally brown, mostly from sediments. But the Big Muddy holds much more than mud, for its level of pollutants is great. In fact, it is sometimes called the Colon of America. In addition to sewage, perhaps the worst pollutants in the river are agricultural in nature.
At the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico lies a so-called Dead Zone of 6,000 to 8,000 square miles. This has been created by the Mississippi’s high amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer run-off, which upsets the food chain, creating very low oxygen levels in coastal waters.
Green advocates hope to cleanse this impressive river by urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to include agricultural run-off—particularly nitrogen and phosphorus pollution—under protocols set by the Clean Water Act of 1972. But the federal government wants the states to act first, so we’ll have to wait and see how this scenario unfolds.
4. Citarum River
The Citarum River, located in West Java, Indonesia, flows through a basin populated by millions of people using the river’s water for drinking, fishing, agriculture and industrial applications. The problem is, thousands of factories line the river and routinely dump their waste into it, turning the water various ugly colors. These factories are supposed to clean the water after they use it and dump it back into the river, but this process is rarely done and violators are rarely prosecuted.
Shockingly, the Blacksmith Institute has declared that lead pollution in the Citarum River is 1,000 times the acceptable level as set by America's Environmental Protection Agency. Because of this ecological catastrophe, the Citarum River is considered by many to be the dirtiest river in the world.
In current times, the Asian Development Bank has loaned Indonesia $500 million over 15 years to help clean up the Citarum River. But, since so many people and industries use the Citarum’s water, cleansing it may remain more fantasy than reality unless billions rather than millions are spent on clean-up.
3. Doce River
The Doce River, which means “sweet water,” runs through southeast Brazil for 853 kilometers, providing much-needed fresh water for the largest steel-making region in Latin America. Unfortunately, in November 2015, location Mariana, two containment dams ruptured, spilling 60 million cubic meters of iron ore sludge into the Doce River, killing at least 17 people and injuring scores of others.
This sludge is so loaded with heavy metals that the aquatic life in this once-sweet river has been destroyed and may never return to normal, devastating the lives of numerous fishermen. Many people use the river for drinking water as well; now they must drink bottled water for months, years, or who knows how long.
BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining conglomerate, which built the aforementioned dams, has been sued by the government of Brazil for $5 billion. But who knows when or if the Doce River will ever be cleaned up after this ecological catastrophe, one of the worst in world history.
2. Yellow River
The condition of the Yellow River, whose water is filled with a yellow sediment known as loess, hence its name, is essential to the well-being of China, though at times the river has flooded, killing millions of people. These days, the river is troublesome in another way: The water in it is so egregiously polluted that it’s unfit even for agricultural use. In fact, in any given year, more than four billion tons of sewage is dumped into the river. And, as China continues to industrialize at breakneck speed, the Yellow River has become a toxic waste dump, turning river water colors other than yellow, at the very least.
But there are environmental activists in China who would like to clean up the Yellow River. Green Camel Bell, established in 2004, is dedicated to the improvement of declining ecosystems in western China. This group, however, will do little more than educate people. The Chinese government must stop cities and industries from dumping waste into the river, then perhaps the color of the Yellow River will return to its former color.
1. Ganges River
The Ganges River, the most sacred river in Hinduism and the third largest river (by discharge) in the world, holds water that can purportedly cleanse people of sin. Many Hindus think the river’s water is so healthful they actually drink it as if it were an elixir. Be that as it may, the importance of the river cannot be overestimated, as it affects the lives of 400 million people who live near it. Unfortunately, people dump their waste into the Ganges as they use it for drinking, bathing and cooking, giving rise to many water-borne illnesses. In fact, people who can’t afford cremation throw corpses into the river. It’s hard to imagine a filthier river than the beloved Ganges.
Also, the Ganges is listed as one of 10 worst plastic polluting rivers on the planet; and, appallingly, according to research in 2015, 8.8 million tons of plastic are thrown into the world’s oceans every year!
Nevertheless, attempts are being made to clean up the Ganges River. The Ganga Action Plan began in 1985 and is considered one of the greatest efforts to clean up a polluted river in the world, has been an abject failure because it’s vastly underfunded. Still, this is a start, and everyone should hope the Ganges River runs clean again.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do any of the most polluted rivers in the world show any improvement nowadays?
Answer: I haven't seen improvement in any of them.
Question: Which river is the most polluted in the world?
Answer: My article says the Ganges is the most polluted, and it still appears to be in that state.
Question: Is Singapore in China?
Answer: No, it's near the southern tip of Malaysia in Southeast Asia.
Question: Is the Kelani River in Sri Lanka safe to drink from?
Answer: I'm sorry, you'll have to do your own research.
Question: What are the criteria or factors to evaluate a river as more or less polluted?
Answer: It's just about impossible to know exactly how polluted a river actually is, but the author's selection process includes statements by environmental protection organizations such as the Ocean Cleanup; otherwise, the selections are his alone.
© 2014 Kelley Marks