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. Water pollution is no small problem. And when it comes to the most polluted rivers in the world, things are even more complicated.

Why Are Polluted Rivers a Concern?

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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.

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!

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.

The majority of the most polluted rivers in the world are in Asia, where populations are denser, and resources are more scarce.

Here’s what the problem looks like in the form of the six most polluted rivers in the world.

Six of the Most Polluted Rivers in the World

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:

  • 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.

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.

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.

Sarno River, Italy

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.

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.

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.


These are merely the top six 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?

Photo Sources

[https://www.orissapost.com/the-race-to-save-the-river-ganges/] [http://www.austroindonesianartsprogram.org/blog/most-polluted-river-world-citarum-river-indonesia] [https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2014/12/17/pictures-chinas-coal-industry-pollutes-yellow-river-basin/] [https://photos.com/featured/a-view-of-sarno-river-near-naples-southern-italy-the-sarno-kontrolab.html] [http://pollutionimage.blogspot.com/2011/09/water-pollution-in-marilao-river.html] [https://www.pinterest.com/pin/532902568379065742/]




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