While the age of the industrial revolution may be a thing of the history books, the ruin of the world’s river basins is still very much a concern of today. Today, we will discuss some details about the most polluted rivers in the world – and some of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. for that matter and try to understand better what can we do about this dire situation.

Water pollution is no small problem. And when it comes to the most polluted rivers in the world, things are even more complicated. With the amount of human population that depends directly on rivers to survive, it’s no wonder that the world’s waters are suffering the outcome of the use and abuse. People are using waterways for drinking and sanitation, transportation, trade routes, power and energy, and much more.

Why Are Polluted Rivers a Concern?

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When harmful substances like chemicals and waste refuge come into contact with the water, river pollution is the result. We have already discussed the major types of water pollution, but it is always good to keep the subject open.

Runoff from chemical processing and outright dumping has led to an accumulation of harmful chemicals in global waters. They also determined a decrease in beneficial fauna and flora populations in our rivers’ waters. Then there’s all the garbage piled up on the river banks and at the bottom due to improper waste management and dumping.

All this contamination is not only making these rivers unsightly. It’s turning them into dangerous territory. About 44% of all river bodies and streams are unsafe to fish or swim. That says nothing about actually drinking the dirty water!

How Are the Most Polluted Rivers Affecting the Health of the World?

Although the United Nations continues to strive to guarantee access to drinking water for everyone, approximately 1,000 children die every year from diseases related to water and sanitation. And these problems are only the tip of the iceberg! Rivers pass through countries and communities, generating environmental and health effects on their way to the oceans of the world.

We have talked about the effects of water pollution before, but here is a short but detailed list of concerns and dangerous consequences we cannot ignore:

  • The water accumulates toxins that are dangerous for both the environment and people who might consume it.
  • The water becomes more acidic, leading to cascading disruptions to the ecosystems;
  • Eutrophication;
  • Destruction of entire ecosystems and endangerment of flora and fauna;
  • Massive losses of wildlife species;
  • Cascading economic losses for communities, with water crises snowballing and even leading to famine and wars;
  • The endangering of human health and life;
  • Extreme water poverty;
  • Expensive efforts of cleaning rivers and water sources that can cripple economies;
  • Death. If the Flint water crisis taught us anything, that is to never again take drinking tap water for granted.

Discussing the most polluted water sources in the world means acknowledging the fact that the majority of the most polluted rivers in the world are in Asia. On this continent, populations are denser, and resources are more scarce. However, there are polluted rivers everywhere, including North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.

Here’s what the problem looks like in the form of the most polluted rivers in the world – in no particular order.

9 of the Most Polluted Rivers in the World

1. Ganges River, India

ganges river pollution

The third-largest river in the world, the Ganges, serves over two billion people. Surprisingly, the Hindus regard this river as holy and believe that bathing in it will wash their sins away.

Pollution comes from a variety of directions and sources far and wide:

  • As plastic pollution goes, plastic reaches the river at a rate of over 1.2 billion pounds per year.
  • Sewage, chemical, and industrial waste are pumped into it regularly from over 1,100 industrial units in the area.
  • The sacred water now contains arsenic, chloride, fluoride, and other heavy metals.
  • People also use the river for personal use, washing their clothes, making religious offerings, and respectfully laying their dead cattle to rest.

An estimated 400 million people over the length of the river rely on the Ganges for drinking water. The water is mostly unfit for direct drinking. There are only seven spots that provide drinkable water nowadays. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the water is safe only after proper disinfection.

2. Yamuna River, India

Tributary to the Ganges river and the second most polluted river in India, the Yamuna river collects toxins, raw sewage, and other water pollutants as it crosses the country. One of the biggest issues concerning this river is the poor management of sewage by the government. Moreover, agricultural and industrial pollution are the harbingers of death and destruction when it comes to the Yamuna. Research showed the river had a pH of 11 due to the poisons and chemicals dumped in the river, making it acidic.

However, the latest news about the Yamuna in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic state that the Yamuna river started cleaning up. Reports say that

The closure of industrial units in the National Capital Region during the lockdown led to an improvement in water quality of the river. The amount of toxic waste being dumped into it has greatly decreased, said vice-chairman of Delhi Jal Board Raghav Chadha. The Jal Board is an Indian government agency responsible for the supply of drinkable water to most of the National Capital Territory region of Delhi.

Nevertheless, the positive effects of reduced human activity and pollution are not visible everywhere. Reports and locals warn that some parts of the river are featuring the same levels of pollution as before the lockdown.

3. Citarum River, Indonesia

citarum river the most polluted river in the world

A good number of factories and a densely populated area are to blame for the pollution of the Citarum River, resulting in mercury levels over 100 times the legal standard. Domestic waste dumping is an issue, as well. All types of chemicals (glass, metal, paints, plastics, and rubber) have collected in the river. In many areas, the pollution is so dense that the floating refuse has created a false surface, with the water, itself, barely visible.

Some would argue it is the most polluted river in the world, as a good number of Indonesia’s 200 million population must rely on the water. The Citarum also flows past a large community of people, as well. Millions of people in West Java rely on its basin for agriculture, electricity, fishery, industrial development, and water supply. There are approximately 50,000 deaths annually as a result.

4. Yellow River, China

Yellow River pollution

The Yellow River, also known as the Huang River, has become a literal toxic waste dump. The phenomenon links to the rapidly growing industrialization of China and the dumping of billions of tons of sewage each year. Chemical factories and the coal mining industry reuse and release waste right back into the river.

The Huang is the third-longest river in Asia, and among the longest river systems in the world, flowing through nine provinces.

Once known for its yellow sediment called loess, the Huang is now heavily polluted. At least one-third of it is not fit for agricultural or even industrial use, let alone consumption! Sadly, there are still 155 million people that depend on it for drinking, leading to a rise in congenital disabilities, cancer, and waterborne diseases.

5. Sarno River, Italy, Europe

sarno river pollution

Following the theme, runoff from agriculture and industrial release has led to the contamination of this river. Today, it is arguably the most polluted river on the European continent. It is also home to heavy contamination by the discharge of human and industrial waste.

The river frequently floods, spilling its toxic mix onto the land causing soil degradation.

Areas along the river still rely on using it for the irrigation of agricultural fields. As a result, there is a distressing increase in liver cancer cases in the area.

6. Danube River, Europe

While the Danube River in Europe was rather clean, new reports say it is now the most contaminated river in Europe with antibiotics. Researchers found up to seven antibiotics surpassing the safety threshold in the Danube throughout all the nine countries it passes through in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Trimethoprim, mainly used to treat urinary tract infections, is the most prevalent antibiotic found in rivers and water streams across the world. While the highest concentrations of antibiotics are in rivers in Africa and Asia, most rivers in North America and Europe also have to deal with alarming concentrations of antibiotics.

According to the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), of all tested sites – more than 700 sites in 72 different countries around the glove – 65% showed concerning levels of antibiotic contamination, exceeding the safety levels by the order of tens or hundreds (as the case of Bangladesh).

7. Marilao River, Philippines

marilao river pollution

Here is another river prone to flooding, spreading pollution to the land. The vast majority of waste in this river comes from the surrounding households and the bordering gold refineries and tanneries.

  • Plastic refuse reaches into the river at an alarming rate.
  • Lead contamination is high enough to be killing off the fish.
  • Some areas contain almost no dissolved oxygen at all.

The Marilao River flows through the Bulacan Province, emptying into Manila Bay. Millions of people along the way rely on this river for not only farming activities but drinking, as well, exposing themselves to serious health risks.

8. Mississippi River, United States

mississippi river most polluted rivers in the world

America has its fair share of polluted waterways, and the Mighty Mississippi is arguably the worst of the most polluted rivers in the US. No wonder its nickname is The Colon of America. Industrial waste, sewage and agricultural runoff has created a Dead Zone of almost 8,000 square miles at the mouth of the river.

Harmful algae thriving in the polluted waters absorb all the oxygen, making it impossible for other organisms to survive. Among the top polluters, the Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia seems to be the worst. Several oil spillages have also reduced marine life in the river. Arsenic, benzene, mercury, and nitrates are present to this day.

The river is a source of drinking water for over 18 million Americans and supports many commercial and recreational activities.

According to an article by American Progress, the EPA conducted a comprehensive survey in 2008 to determine the wastewater-infrastructure needs over the next 20 years for just the United States alone. Their conservative estimate was $298 billion. It included the running of wastewater treatment systems, stormwater management, and distributing recycled water.

However, as history sadly proved, the United States has a long way ahead to solve its current water crisis and fix the water issues occurring in this day and age.

A Few Words on Water Quality in the U.S.

As we know, water quality in the U.S. is under scrutiny. Some would say it is shady at best. As we said on a previous occasion, 

Decaying infrastructure is one of the reasons why nearly 80 million Americans drink unsafe tap water. The Safe Drinking Water Act violations by water treatment facilities are more frequent than anyone would like to believe. However, they exist, endangering the health of people in every state across the nation. People show more and more interest in the quality of the water they drink. According to a 2017 Gallup environmental poll, 63% of Americans worry “a great deal” about the pollution of their drinking water. After the Flint water crisis and other concerning media-uncovered stories about water contamination throughout the country, the American public shows a welcomed awareness.

Nevertheless, the Mississippi River is not the most polluted river in the U.S. Unfortunately, among the most polluted rivers in the U.S., we can also count the Ohio River, New River, Savannah River, and more. 

9. Ohio River, United States

The Ohio River won the dishonorable award of being one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. and one of the most polluted rivers in the world for years in a row. According to studies, the Ohio River gets millions of tons of chemicals dumped every year. The major sources of pollution come from a wide variety of businesses and industries, including food processors, chemical plants, and steel manufacturers.

While the releases of pollutants and toxins in the Ohio River are legal, we cannot ignore the fact that most nitrate compounds, found in pesticides, the high concentrations of mercury, and the bioaccumulation of other toxic wastes lead to fish-consumption warnings for Ohio and are a reason of concern for local communities and environmental groups alike. 

Most Polluted Rivers in the World: FAQs

Answering questions about water pollution and the most polluted rivers in the world is a permanent challenge, as data get updates every day and things change permanently for the better or worse. However, we will try to answer here some of the most pressing inquiries regarding this issue.

1. What is the most polluted river in the U.S.?

Arguably, the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Holston River are the top three most polluted rivers in the U.S. The Ohio River seems to be the most polluted river in North America, although it made some progress since the installment of the Clean Water Act. Although the American waters are getting cleaner, there is no doubt that there is plenty of work when it comes to reducing pollution in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

2. Which state in the U.S. has the worst water quality?

It is hard to make a top of states with the worst water quality, as data changes and the authorities are constantly trying to find the best courses of action to limit and reduce drinking water pollution. Some while ago, the states that declared poor water quality were Texas, Florina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and more. However, if you want to know what is in your drinking water in the community you live in, use water testing kits to have a detailed picture of what you use and drink every day. It is one of the simplest ways to learn what pollutants, toxins, heavy metals, or waterborne pathogens you expose yourself to with every glass of water you drink.

3. How do I know my tap water is bad?

Type your ZIP code in the EWG database if you want to know more about the contaminants identified in the drinking water of your area. For any concerns about your drinking water, no matter the state you live in, we strongly recommend you ask the local water treatment system for an annual report on contaminants, check it against the water test results you obtained using a home kit, and corroborate the answers with a third-party independent laboratory test.

4. What is the most polluted lake in the United States?

For many years, experts considered the Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y. as the dirties lake in the U.S. However, read recent reports and data, as it seems the lake becomes cleaner and cleaner due to joint efforts from governmental officials and environmental groups.

5. Is tap water safe for drinking in the U.S. if it comes from some of the most polluted rivers in the country?

Most drinking water in the U.S. falls under the regulations of the E.P.A and its standards of water safety. Your drinking water also benefits from purification treatments at the water plant. However, since the quality of tap water in many U.S. communities is of low quality, shows high levels of hardness, and can contain microorganisms, it is best to look for the best water filtration system for your type of home and needs.

Bottom Line

These are merely the top nine of the most polluted rivers in the world. The sad truth is that the world knows of many others following closely behind in their footsteps. Growing human populations and limited industrial monitoring are often the culprits. The silver lining is that environmental groups are taking notice and advocating for drastic changes. But could it be too little too late?

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