This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.
River pollution is a global environmental issue that affects the health of our planet, countless plant and animal species, as well as our own well-being.
The most polluted rivers in the world are the Ganges River, Yellow River, Citarum River, Buriganga River, Yangtze River, Mississippi River, Sarno River, Jordan River, and the Nile River.
The pollution of our planet’s rivers has never been a more serious environmental dilemma than it is now. While rivers are sometimes sabotaged by natural disasters, there is no greater contributor to the pollution of our freshwater channels than human activity. With global economies rising and industrialization reaching peaks in western countries, as well as developing ones, our freshwater channels and all of those who depend on them are paying the price. To understand more about our world’s most polluted rivers, we are going to analyze each one individually.
In the United States, the level of pollution in our rivers is monitored by various government organizations such as the United States Geological Survey, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency - or by various non-profit conservation organizations. In addition, each nation has its own protocol for monitoring the health of its rivers and dictates its own level of environmental regulation.
Most Polluted Rivers
River pollution is not a new concept within the sphere of environmental challenges that we face, but it is reaching an all-time high of global issues pertaining to the health of our planet. Ending river pollution in its entirety is an extremely difficult issue to tackle, as it requires the cooperation of all countries on our planet.
The largest contributor to the pollution of our rivers comes from the industrial complex. Large-scale industries around the globe are responsible for environmental catastrophes, which have caused more pollution to our rivers than any other entity. These giant corporations constantly put profits over ethics and prioritize their business before considering ecological ramifications - and usually carry out their unsustainable practices with impunity.
With that being said, the actions of everyday citizens on our planet are also to blame for the pollution of our planet’s rivers. We easily forget how our own actions contribute to the global environmental issues that the world faces. Our consumerist lifestyles and lack of personal environmental responsibility all have an effect on the health of the rivers of our world.
This is particularly troubling as we have come to greatly take for granted just how precious of a resource the freshwater from our rivers is. With just 3% of our planet’s water being freshwater, of which the majority is frozen in the polar ice caps, rivers are one of our few access points for receiving the water that we are all dependent on for survival. While there are environmental organizations that aim to prevent and mitigate river pollution, there is still so much work that needs to be done for us to achieve ecologically sound river health. Let’s take a closer look at the most polluted rivers in the world.
The Ganges River is one of the longest rivers in the world at just over 2,500km and flows from Northern India into Bangladesh. This river is considered to be sacred in India and is, unfortunately, the most polluted river in the world.
It is estimated that the Ganges River receives an estimate of nearly 5 billion liters of pollution in just a single day. This is a staggering amount of pollution for a river that such a large number of people are dependent on. With India having one of the largest populations in the world, having its primary source of freshwater tainted to this degree creates a lot of environmental problems and humanitarian catastrophes.
The Ganges River provides over half a million people with their drinking water on a daily basis. This water rarely, if ever, receives proper treatment that would make polluted water safe to drink - and even if it did - the water in the Ganges River has been tainted beyond conventional treatment.
One of the biggest contributors to the pollution of the Ganges River comes directly from untreated sewage, which is pumped into the freshwater channel continuously. Much of this has to do with a lack of developed infrastructure within the densely populated nation, but also due to a lack of consideration and environmental education, which leaves the Ganges River to be not only a primary source of water for many people but also, in so many ways, a primary public toilet.
India is home to a lot of farms, many of which run industrial-sized operations, which all depend on the Ganges River for their crops. The use of the Ganges River by farmers is a tragic and vicious cycle, which keeps the nation’s agricultural system in an unsanitary state of unsustainable practices.
The farmers utilize the water from the Ganges River to irrigate their farms and water their crops, but the water has been polluted to such a degree that it is not suitable even for agricultural use. The farmers then further contribute to the pollution of the Ganges River by utilizing it as a way to dispose of the pollution from their farm - either directly or through runoff.
The pollution of the Ganges River is also sourced from an embedded Indian funeral tradition. It is a rooted cultural practice to dispose of dead bodies directly into the Ganges River as a funeral ceremony. To this day, the number of bodies that have been disposed of in the river is unknown but shockingly high.
The Yellow River is located in China and is the sixth-longest river in the world and is also one of the most polluted. This freshwater channel stretches over 5, 500km through China and has been a vital cultural and economic asset for thousands of years - earning it the name ‘the mother river of China’.
The name ‘Yellow River’ originates from the yellowish color that the river is known for, which comes from the runoff of silt. The color of the Yellow River also comes from the flooding that much of its territory is prone to. While the natural occurrences that influence the color of the river can amount to a certain level of pollution, they are by no means what have made the Yellow River one of the most polluted freshwater channels in the world.
In the past few decades, we have watched China’s economy skyrocket on the global stage and the quality of life of its citizens greatly improve. China’s economic shift has made it a major world power and one of the wealthiest nations on our planet but at the cost of environmental catastrophes, which have left the Yellow River in turmoil.
A lot of the pollution that enters the river is caused by China’s extremely rapid growth and development. Large cities that house millions of people have been constructed in China at a pace that their infrastructure could not keep up with. This led to unsustainable means of waste disposal from urban garbage and even sewage.
In addition, the Yellow River is used and abused by various industries, which rely on the river for their business practices who then pump out the waste from their industry back into the water. This has jeopardized the water source for millions of people in the country - especially in the northern regions.
It is estimated that more than 75% of the Yellow River is unsafe for public use and more than 10% of its entire content is pure waste pollution. Meanwhile, factories and industries continue to dispose of waste into the river with little to no government oversight or regulation. It seems that China’s economic success is valued far greater by the government than the freshwater channel that it calls ‘the mother river of China’.
The Citarum River located in Indonesia is roughly 270km in length and has an extremely bad level of pollution. This freshwater channel is a vital resource of water for hundreds of thousands of people and is utilized by Indonesia’s public for economic stability on so many fronts.
The Citarum River is heavily fished by locals and provides many fishermen with their only means of income. In addition, locals fish from the river daily as their only means of food for survival, which makes it an extremely valuable asset to Indonesians living in Java.
However, the livelihoods of all people that depend on the Citarum River are at great risk due to the amount of pollution that enters the river on a daily basis. This water in the river has become contaminated to the point that fishing within it is not only extremely challenging due to the declining population of fish, but also due to the potential health risks of consuming anything that came from the river. Since the late 2000s, the population of fish within the Citarum River has declined by more than 60%.
The biggest contributor to pollution in the Citarum River comes directly from the textile industry. One of Indonesia’s biggest exports, which supports their economy, comes directly from their production of textiles and clothing goods. The textile industry is extremely inconsiderate when it comes to environmental sustainability and produces its products without any means of pollution control. The majority of the runoff from this industry goes directly into the Citarum River.
This has amounted to more than 350,000 tons of liquid waste from the industry pouring into the river in recent years. The majority of this waste is actually fueled by western consumerism driven by fast fashion. As clothing becomes cheaper and more available, nations like Indonesia capitalize on this and put profit over the health of their vital Citarum River.
In addition, a lack of local infrastructure for waste disposal means that many of the locals that live along or near the Citarum River are also contributing to the river’s pollution by adding more than 25,000 tons of garbage waste into the channel. This is worsened by poor infrastructure for sewage, which also finds its way into the Citarum River.
The Buriganga River runs through Bangladesh and while it is only 17km in length it is still considered to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This river is used by the locals of its area in a number of different ways, which all contribute to its pollution.
This Bangladeshi River has served as a vital trade route for centuries and is utilized by merchants and industries for this purpose to this day. It also serves as a means of transport for millions of people annually who cross the river in all directions. Given that the Buriganga River is located so close to the nation’s capital Dhaka, it serves as a very convenient access point for citizens.
Aside from its historic roots in Bangladesh, the Buriganga River has been subject to much more environmental harm than it has in the past. Today the river is a primary source of waste disposal from various industries and factories located near it, which amounts to just under 65,000 cubic meters of toxic waste on a daily basis. In addition, poor urban waste disposal from nearby cities and townships results in the river practically being an open sewer, as millions of people utilize it as a toilet.
This is particularly shocking given that millions of people are also using the Buriganga River as a primary source of drinking water for themselves and for their families. The river in recent years has been subject to severe drying, which only condenses the level of pollution further. This staggering level of pollution has resulted in all fish species within the river to completely die off - in addition to practically all other life within the river.
Tackling environmental issues like this in poorer, underdeveloped nations like Bangladesh is extremely challenging, as the country does not have the funding to support sustainable infrastructure.
The Yangtze River is located in China and stretches over 6,000km in length and is the third-largest river in the world. This river has traditionally been known for its sheer beauty and is highly valued within China for both economic purposes, as well as historic quality, but unfortunately, it is now one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
The Yangtze River is widely considered to be the most important river for all of China and more than 400 million people live along the river or within its proximity. Today the river is an extremely valuable asset for the Chinese government and its economy, as the Yangtze River has numerous hydropower stations on it including the largest one in the world, the Three Gorges Dam.
The amount of pollution stems from a lot of different areas of human activity. For starters, given that the Yangtze River is so long, it provides a very tactful purpose for the economy for trade, which means that vessels are utilizing it very regularly. These vessels dispose of a lot of waste from ports, as well as directly into the river during voyages.
The Yangtze River has also been greatly polluted from industrial waste that gets pumped into the river without treatment. This has led to a massive decline in fish species populations of a river that was once flourishing with life. In response, the Chinese government has prohibited fishing from the river completely to locals that have depended on the Yangtze for thousands of years.
In addition, large industrial farms can be found along the Yangtze River’s 6,300km length, which practice unsustainable farming. These farms contribute to the pollution in the Yangtze by directly disposing of agricultural waste into it. The farms also have toxic runoff that flows into the river due to a lack of regulation.
It is estimated that more than 35 billion tons of wastewater are pumped into the Yangtze River annually. Given how many people depend on the Yangtze River, a lot of human waste and garbage ends up in the river from everyday people. This waste and garbage all end up making their way into our oceans, which amounts to more than 50% of all waste that goes into China’s neighboring seas.
The iconic American Mississippi River is more than 3,700km in length and is the second biggest freshwater drainage in all of North America - beginning in Lake Itasca and ending in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Mississippi River is home to more than 25% of all American fish species and serves as a vital habitat for so many aquatic plant and animal species, which are all at risk due to the concerning rate of pollution in the river.
Given that the United States has such a large amount of land that is used for agriculture, which borders the Mississippi River, one of the biggest contributors to the pollution of the freshwater channel comes directly from farming. Toxic runoff from farms has been flowing into the river for decades and has made this beautiful river one of the most polluted in the world.
These days the Mississippi River is full of nitrates, bacteria, and harmful metals like mercury and lead. The mismanagement of the river continues to be a major problem as the Mississippi River continues to get abused by pollution to this day - despite the shift towards sustainability that the United States is moving towards.
In addition, the Mississippi River has experienced pollution for a long time before it was plagued by the damage caused by the industrial farming complex. In 1962 the river experienced an oil spill that led to millions of gallons of oil being pumped into the freshwater channel. The recovery of this oil spill is something that is still being felt to this day.
The Sarno River is located in Italy and is just 24km in length, which runs from Pompeii to Naples. What was once a highly valuable asset for the Romans and the country of Italy has now become one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
A major contributor to the pollution of the Sarno River comes from the agricultural industry. Farmers that are set up along the river have disposed of their waste directly into the Sarno for decades and have destroyed this valuable natural resource for the whole region. The farmers of the area have also contributed to the pollution indirectly through the toxic runoff that flows out of their farms and into the Sarno River.
In addition, there are hundreds of various industries that are near the Sarno River that also contribute to its level of pollution. These industries have pumped toxic waste into the river for decades with little oversight, which has made the river unusable for traditional means.
Although the level of pollution in the Sarno River does not meet the high amounts of pollution found in some rivers in Asia, its small size makes it particularly vulnerable and sensitive to the pollution that does reach it. In recent years, the Italian government has taken measures to help contain the level of pollution by mitigating or eliminating the amount of flow that enters the Sarno River. However, many environmental critics speculate that this action is too little too late.
The Jordan River is located in the Middle East where it eventually flows into the Dead Sea and is 250km in length. The river has a lot of cultural and religious significance to Muslims, Christians, and Jews due to the holiness of its location.
Traditionally, the Jordan River has been highly valued by the Middle Eastern nations that it flows through due to it being incredibly useful for farmers in those areas. These farmers have utilized the Jordan River for centuries for growing their crops, which for the longest time was done sustainably with little pollution and harm being brought to the river.
However, much like with the rest of the world, these Middle Eastern nations adopted practices initiated by the industrial farming complex, which involve using unsustainable methods for growing food. These poor farming practices involve pumping agricultural waste directly into the Jordan River. These farms also have a substantial amount of runoff which makes its way into the river as well.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern citizens in Palestine, Israel, and Jordan that live along the Jordan River. These citizens are responsible for contributing to the pollution of the river by dumping their own waste into it. This includes the dumping of untreated sewage and household garbage.
The Nile River is the longest river on Earth and stretches more than six and half thousand kilometers through Egypt and Sudan. The river is iconic for Africa and is an extremely valued source of water in a region that is primarily arid.
These days, however, the Nile River is considered to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world with nearly 5 million tons of pollutants flowing through it. This vital natural resource has provided drinking water to locals who depend on it for thousands of years. It is also responsible for securing the livelihoods of so many people due to it providing farmers a way to grow crops.
This is especially important given that it is the only primary water source in the entire region. This has enabled agriculture to flourish and economies to stabilize. However, the economic prosperity created by farming is also now what is causing the most harm to the Nile River. With dozens of huge agricultural drains making their way into the river, it has become highly polluted.
This amount of drainage coming from agricultural waste has caused so much pollution that it is now jeopardizing the entire water channel for millions of people. The pollution of the Nile River is threatening aquatic species and is also creating problems for fisherman that depend on these species for their livelihood. Many fishermen have now had to find alternative means of living, as they claim that the Nile River is no longer safe for fishing.
In addition, many of the locals that live along the Nile River are also responsible for the harm that is being done to it. Locals that inhabit areas nearby the river utilize it for the disposal of untreated sewage. The river also receives pollution from numerous townships that are near it through accidental or deliberate waste mismanagement.
River Pollution Solutions
The time to take action to prevent further pollution from entering our planet’s rivers has never been more important. The pollution of our freshwater channels is a major issue that is plaguing the world.
This has caused countless species to decline or go completely extinct. The river pollution caused by humans ends up heavily burdening all of humanity and jeopardizes the livelihoods of billions of people on this Earth, which is why we need to actively work towards finding solutions to prevent river pollution and put them into action immediately. Let’s take a closer look at some solutions to river pollution.
So much of the waste that enters the most polluted rivers in the world comes from everyday people and it is largely due to a lack of education.
This is particularly a problem in developing nations that have not been brought up with the concept of proper waste disposal or environmental value. Many of the people that contribute to this global issue do so without the full knowledge of how it will affect their own life.
To help people all around the world understand how river pollution will affect them and the entire planet, we need to find a way to make education a focal point of solving river pollution. Governments and educational institutions around the globe need to take initiative in this fight by making environmental education a key part of all curriculums.
In addition, governments can create community programs and public health announcements that help people make more sustainable life choices.
A major reason why river pollution is such a big environmental issue is that many governments have looked the other way or even allowed pollution to take place.
This generally occurs when governments prioritize economic growth over the health of their environment. While this is the approach that many western governments have taken during the 20th century, the impact of this is now being felt heavily as we watch our planet’s rivers become polluted beyond rescue.
With the current shift towards sustainable living, many western nations are implementing legislation that encourages and requires us to take care of our environment by preventing river pollution. We need to continue along this path and pass more legislation that enforces strict guidelines pertaining to the health of our rivers.
A huge challenge of implementing laws and legislation that prevent river pollution is that each nation needs to create its own regulation for this and with many nations struggling with their economy, the prospect of prioritizing the environment is not the first on their list.
The biggest contributors to large-scale river pollution still come from massive industries and corporations around the globe. The industries have blatantly polluted our planet’s rivers for decades and have done so without consequence.
While for a long time these industries were able to get away with this environmental injustice, due to a lack of government oversight, the recent pull towards adopting environmental values on a national level in many countries is amounting to a serious change in this fight.
With laws and legislation being implemented that regulate industries with strict guidelines, we can finally begin to hold the true culprits responsible for polluting the world’s rivers accountable. These industries need to be heavily regulated to prevent further river pollution from occurring.
In addition, when these industries violate environmental laws and pollute our rivers, they need to be harshly punished for their actions.
It is easy to forget that although we may not be directly contributing to the pollution of our world’s rivers, we are likely indirectly doing so.
Western societies in particular are adopting a much stronger stance on environmental issues through regulation, education, and accountability, but it is often our consumerism that perpetuates river pollution around the globe.
By buying products that were manufactured in specific regions, made out of certain materials, or manufactured using unsustainable methods, we are also culprits in this matter. To take part in the fight to end the river pollution happening on our planet, we need to begin practicing conscientious consumerism.
This means taking the time to understand more about the goods and services that you buy and confirming where they came from. A key example of this is fast fashion, which drives the demand of environmentally unsound practices being carried out by textile industries.