10 Most Polluted Rivers in the World (With Shocking Images)

One of the biggest environmental concerns today is human influence that leads to river pollution. If we don’t stop to think about our next step, soon it might be too late.

Although the situation may seem alarming, no country wants to be infamous for having the dirtiest river in the world. Governments are taking steps to reduce, if not completely eliminate river pollution. Conservation efforts include installing water filters, cleaning the river banks, and removing waste from the water.

In this article you will find out which river is the most polluted river in the US and the unflattering list of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the world. But first, let’s quickly outline the causes of river pollution.

Causes of River Pollution

People have lived on, around, or near rivers for thousands of years. We have left a permanent mark on river ecosystems and in some case made them completely inhospitable.

River pollution happens when harmful substances come in contact with water. Centuries of improper waste management created and still create deposits of garbage on river beds. The industrial revolution and advancements in technology and transportation only made things worse.

Increased number of factories, poor environmental standards, and lack of proper legislation has made certain rivers in the world not only polluted but outright dangerous to be around. However, in the last few decades we can observe an increased awareness about the issue, and in some cases stricter regulations are being introduced and enforced.

Top 10 Most Polluted Rivers in the World

You may think that the most polluted rivers in the world are located in developing countries. But you will be surprised to find out that river pollution exists in Europe, North and South America, as well as Asia and Africa. The only common denominator is human influence.

Ganges River

The Ganges runs for 1,569mi through India and Bangladesh. Not only is it one of the most sacred rivers for Indians, but the Ganges also represents a lifeline for millions of those whose daily needs depend on it. The environmental impact over the years has been devastating, by all accounts enough to make the Ganges the dirtiest river in the world.

Even though the Hindus believe the Ganges will cleanse them from sins, there is nothing clean about it. Human waste levels, or fecal coliform, are 100 times higher than the legal limit. The Hindus have been performing burial rituals in the Ganges, and if you combine that with rapid industrialization it is easy to understand why the Ganges is extremely polluted.

There were some conservation efforts, but little has been achieved. The authorities devised The Ganga Action Plan back in 1986, but due to corruption and lack of proper education and equipment it is considered a failure. We can only hope that future plans will yield a safer river ecosystem for almost half a billion people who use it every day.

most polluted rivers in the world

Citarum River

Indonesia is the home of the Citarum River, and it is the longest and largest river in West Java. Java is the most populated Indonesian island, the site of Jakarta and other major cities, so around 200 million people share the areas around the Citarum River. There are also a great number of factories, which only makes the matter worse. The river has been used for everything from water supply, agriculture, industry, sewerage, and power supply.

The Citarum River landed on the list because of the fact that industries, primarily textile, contribute to major accumulation of toxic waste. The river contains lead, mercury, and arsenic. The levels of lead are 1000 times higher than the US legal limit. The combination of these factors is responsible for more than 50,000 deaths every year.

In the past decade, there were some efforts to improve the situation. The government set up a $3.5 billion plan to clean the Citarum River over the course of fifteen years. And, in 2009 an additional $500 million loan was secured by The Asian Development Bank. The revitalization began in 2011 and we can only hope that it will achieve the desired results.

most polluted rivers in the world

Yellow River

The Yellow River got its name because of yellow sediment loess that gives it the distinct yellow color. It is the second longest river in Asia with an estimated length of 3,395mi. The Yellow River was very important to early Chinese civilization, but due to changing elevation and flooding it has earned nicknames like China’s Sorrow and Scourge of the Han People.

These nicknames are still applicable today, since the Yellow River has become one of the most polluted rivers in China. It is suggested that one third of the river is not suitable for industrial or agricultural use. The factors contributing to this are the fast-growing cities and factory discharges.

The Chinese government assembled the Yellow River Conservancy Commission which conducted a detailed investigation into the environmental problems. The results concluded that more than 33% of the river is unsuitable for any use. Additional conservation efforts are needed to prevent further pollution of the Yellow River.

most polluted rivers in the world

Sarno River

Sarnus as it is known to the Romans, or the Sarno River, flows from the base of Mt. Sarno to the Bay of Naples. The Sarno River accumulates water from its two tributaries Solofrana and Cavaiola. Although its course runs for only 15mi it is arguably the most polluted river in Europe.

The good thing is that its source is not contaminated, and the water is safe for drinking. However, discharge from agriculture and industry has contributed to extreme pollution downstream. Poor sanitary standards and waste management, especially in the area around Naples, caused an increase in liver cancer cases.

Some preservation efforts have been made to protect the river and the ecosystems around it. A Padova University study outlined all of the problems, including detailed measurements at every part of what the researchers termed the “River Sarno fluvial corridor, and proposed a number of potential solutions. But, as of this writing, more things need to be done to remove the Sarno River from this list.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Buriganga River

The Buriganga River, or the Old Ganges, is located in Bangladesh and it flows near the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The course of the Buriganga River is only 11mi long, but the number of people and industries that depend on the river make it one of the most polluted in the world.

There are plenty of pollution problems along the Buriganga River. They include chemical waste, household waste, medical waste, dead animals, and many more. However, the biggest polluter of the Buriganga River may be the tanning industry. It releases a great number of toxic chemicals directly into the river, causing an array of environmental and health hazards for the people working in the industry.

Residents of Dhaka organized a human chain in order to appeal to the authorities to improve the situation. Although the High Court of Bangladesh issued a verdict back in 2009, providing a legal framework for protection, the authorities have yet to properly enforce the legislation.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Marilao River

The Marilao River is located in the Philippines, and it has seen real battles in the Philippine-American War, as well as the battles to protect it from pollution. It is home to hundreds of thousands of people and a great number of industries. Most of the drainage is untreated and the factories release waste directly into the Marilao River without the use of water filters.

A lot of contamination comes from lead recycling facilities. Similar to the Buriganga River, the tanneries located along the Marilao River release untreated hexavalent chromium directly into the river. This pollutes the Manila Bay and seriously affects the fishing industry. There are reports that do a good job of outlining all of the hidden dangers and costs of the Marilao River pollution.

There are international projects that aim to clean and preserve the Marilao River, but they have been met by indifference from some of the locals. Since the people who live near the Marilao River believe that the pollution is the price they have to pay for economic progress.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Mississippi River

The Mississippi is the second longest river in the United States, stretching for 2,320mi from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It has been one of the most important lifelines in North America, and as such a home for millions of peoples. However, it is also the most polluted river in the US.

The Mississippi is brown because of all the wastes that are being dumped into the river. The main environmental dangers to the Mississippi River come from industries and agriculture. The aquatic life in the river has been seriously affected by nitrogen-based fertilizer which seeps into the water instead of remaining in the soil. In the past, oil spills were also one of the main pollutants of the Mississippi.

The positive thing is that in the past decades there has been an increased awareness about the pollution of the Mississippi River. There are numerous organizations and individuals who are contributing to the preservation of the Mississippi basin. And the EPA has been fairly good at enforcing the Clean Water Act.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Jordan River

The Jordan is a 156mi-long Middle Eastern river. Its source is in Mount Hermon and it flows into the Dead Sea. The Jordan River has a great cultural and religious significance to Christians and Hebrews. According to the legend, it is where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, and the place of Jesus’ baptism.

The water at its source is clean and can be used by humans. But, the level of toxicity increases as the water travels downstream. Poor waste management, as is the case with most of the other rivers on our list, is one of the primary causes of pollution in the Jordan River. The main issue is the increased salinity of the water which makes it unfit for human consumption.

Recently, another major contributor to the pollution is the number of refugees who found shelter along the banks of the Jordan River. The refugee crisis coupled with local population increases is worsening the pollution problems. However, steps are being taken by the international community to prevent the situation from escalating.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Matanza River

The Matanza River, or the slaughterhouse river, is located in Argentina and it marks the southern boundary of the Buenos Aires federal district. It runs for 40mi, and the course of the Matanza River is heavily canalized, particularly in the lower parts of the river. As you may have guessed, there are a great number of industries located along its banks, making it hard to protect the river.

Millions of tons of sewage are released into the Matanza River every day. Even worse is the fact that chemical factories deposit mercury and lead into the river, which has caused a spike of cancer cases in the region. The Matanza earned the nickname slaughterhouse river because of the numerous slaughterhouses and tanneries along its banks. They are also the reason for the river’s foul smell.

However, it is not all bad news. The World Bank reports that significant improvements have been made in cleaning and protecting the Matanza River. There projects to limit the discharge of sewage and industrial waste into the water and those that oxygenate the Matanza River to revitalize its ecosystem.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Yamuna River

The Yamuna River is the second largest tributary of the Ganges River. It originates from the Yamunotri Glacier and flows for 855mi before it meets the Ganges. Around 57 million people depend on the Yamuna River for the highly-fertile alluvial plains along its banks.

Although the land around the river is highly fertile, agriculture is one of Yamuna River’s main sources of pollution. Another thing contributing to its pollution, besides agriculture and industry, is poor raw-sewage management. New Delhi has a handful of functional sewage plants which increases the pH level of the Yamuna water.

Many are wondering if the Yamuna River can ever be saved. There have been initiatives led by prominent Indian intellectuals to clean up the river. The awareness of the problem seems to be great, but a more integrated, government-supported effort is needed to achieve long-term results.

Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Final Thoughts

We all need to make a joined effort to protect the rivers, or we may soon find the dirtiest river in the world in our backyard.

We hope that this list of the most polluted rivers in the world makes you aware of the great magnitude of river pollution. Prompt actions need to be taken, or we might find ourselves living in a Mad Max-like world very soon.

There is still some hope left, as evidenced by the conservation and recovery efforts on the Mississippi River, the reigning most polluted river in the US. So, in all seriousness and without virtue signals let us all join forces and protect our rivers before they are damaged beyond repair.

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