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UVA Leading Efforts to Clean Up the Yamuna River

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University of Virginia
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Rivers connect the cities of Virginia, and it turns out they also connect this state to the world.  Sandy Hausman reports on a unique partnership between the University of Virginia and a city 7,500 miles away.

The Yamuna River runs through the heart of Delhi – India’s second largest city, with a population of 11 million people.  Sadly, pollution is so bad that nothing can live in the Yamuna, and the city has essentially turned its back on the waterway.  Now, however, officials hope to change that.

"The Indian government has made river clean-up an important priority.

And University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan says UVA – with its strong  urban planning program – will help.

“They’ve got the know how.  We’re there more to provide a sense of envisioning and possibility and cooperation.”

The Yamuna River Project was born when a visiting professor  from India -- Pankaj Gupta -- met Inaki Alday at the school of architecture. They talked about how the river could be restored and visited with a group of students in 2014.  Alday recalls black water filled with trash and nothing green in sight.

“In the entire river, there was not a single bird. While Delhi is full of birds, the river had not a single living entity around.  And what did it smell like?  The smell was extremely strong, unbearable, and the water you should never touch.”

But people were touching it – actually growing crops when water levels fell.

“The flood plain of the Yamuna and the other spaces that are along other drains are often farmed illegally in poisonous soil, irrigated with sewage water, and vegetables washed with sewage water, so it’s  a real health issue.”

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Credit Dan Addison / University of Virginia
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UVA architecture professor Inaki Alday is spearheading the Yamuna River Project.

But architects are paid to imagine, and here they saw something more.

“What we saw was an extraordinary potential of transformation. Water quality will improve when the relation between the city and the river has been restored.”

In other words, the city needs to make this river – now hidden by massive slums – into someplace residents can see and visit – a waterway lined with parks and public spaces.

“Most of the population of Delhi cannot recall having seen the river during the last 10-20 years.”

Local government has committed to building a sewage treatment plant and signed a 5-year agreement with the University of Virginia to collaborate in planning river restoration. This month, UVA is hosting an exhibit in Delhi – to show people how a whole new Yamuna could transform their city.  Again, UVA President Teresa Sullivan:

"The idea of the exhibit is to get citizens in Delhi and New Delhi interested in this, and to see what the possibilities are and to change the way they think about the river." 

And back in Charlottesville, faculty members from the school of architecture, engineering, environmental sciences, anthropology, public health and economics are pitching in with expertise to make it happen.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief