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23 Most Polluted Rivers in the World | Where Not to Swim

Rivers are a valuable source for many and are often incredibly beautiful and often a big tourist attraction if they have a unique selling point. But how do the most polluted rivers in the world get the state they are in?

These rivers were also once gorgeous and sustainable sites for many. Well, unfortunately, the pollution is the result of unsustainable practices by us – humans. The sad thing is that these polluted rivers are often in the most developing countries where many residents don’t have any other alternative water source.

But where are these rivers, and how did we get here?

World’s Most Polluted Rivers

These are the most polluted streams in each continent. These global destinations are packed with beauty, but these are the few rivers you shouldn’t consider dipping into. These rivers may contain untreated sewage, human waste, tonnes of plastic, be located near chemical plants or a number of other practices that can be a major contributor to a lack of aquatic life.

1. Citarum River, Indonesia


Image by Canva

The Citarum River, in the West Java province east of Jakarta, is the most polluted river in the world. Many people say the first thing they notice when they reach the bank is the pungent and arid smell.

The main source of pollution in the river is the amount of chemical waste dumped here by over 2,000 textile companies in the area. The rest of the pollution is due to plastic, rubbish, and faecal bacteria dumped in the river by residents living nearby because they have no other alternative. This can have a negative impact on human health in the area.

2. Ganges River, India


Image by Shiv Prasad on Unsplash

The Ganges River in India is a close second to the most polluted river in the world. It starts in the western Himalayas and flows into Bangladesh’s Bay of Bengal.

The waterway is used for many reasons, including fishing, washing, irrigation, drinking, and funeral services. According to the Hindu faith, it is the personification of the Ganga River goddess. So, bathing or drinking its water is thought to purify humans.

Unfortunately, things like industrial waste, remnants of human and animal corpses, and poor waste management have made these waters one of the main culprits for India’s waterborne illnesses.

3. Yellow River, China


Image by Canva

This golden river flows through a few cities in the Shandong province in North China. Its yellow-brown colour is attributed to the high counts of silt that rises when the river overflows.

The Yellow River is still the main source of drinking water for millions, but about one-third of it is considered undrinkable. This is due to the large amounts of chemicals, domestic waste, and oil spills. Sadly, this caused a rise in waterborne diseases and birth defects in people who are reliant on this water source.

4. Sarno River, Italy


Image on Canva

The Sarno is the most polluted river in Europe and flows from Pompeii to Naples. The highest points of the river are safe, but the further you travel along the length of it, the more toxic it gets.

The river flows past farms and many industrial factories and facilities. This means that industrial waste, sewage, and agricultural runoff are being dumped in it. As a result, its toxic waters have long caused health issues like liver cancer in people reliant on it.

5. Mississippi River, United States


Image by Justin Wilkens on Unsplash

The Mississippi River runs from northern Minnesota and flows right into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the second-longest river in the US and passes through some of the most beautiful states in the US. It is also one of the most polluted in the country.

The main source of river pollution is agricultural runoff, which has increased the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the soil and waters. This, and oil spills, have caused much of the marine life to die off.

6. Jordan River, Israel


Image by Canva

Also known as the Nahr Al-Sharieat, the River Jordan is a source of holy water and a pilgrimage site for Muslims, Christians, and Jewish people. Unfortunately, due to unsustainable practices, the waters of this most sacred river have a high salinity level. This is due to sewage disposal, agricultural waste, and a rapid increase in population.

7. Yamuna River, India


Image by Gowri Subramanya on Unsplash

Nicknamed the ‘Dead River’, this stream is so polluted that it has no oxygen content. Still, while the North Indian River has no life, it remains a sacred river in the country that millions visit. 

Today, you’ll see it stagnant with toxic foam and plastic waste floating on the top. The water is so polluted that there is a slim chance of recovering it to a drinking state. Its current pH level is 11, while safe drinking water has a pH of 7.

8. Yangtze River, China


Image by Dong Zhang on Unsplash

The Yangtze River is the longest in Asia and literally translates to ‘longest river’ in English. It travels from China’s west and ends in the east, touching the East China Sea.

For the same reasons that China has many of the most polluted cities in the world, this river’s pollution levels have risen mainly because of overpopulation and rapid industrialisation. As a result, there has been an overgrowth in algae and the minimisation of oxygen in the water, which has stunted the marine life in the river.

9. Pasig River, Philippines


Image from Canva

The Pasig River in the Phillippines has been biologically dead since the 1990s. The river runs through Manila, the Philippine capital, and remains a significant mode of transport, livelihood, and food.

Since then, there has been a significant effort launched to restore the water quality, but it will still take a few decades to restore it entirely. However, 1.3 million tons of silt and waste have been removed from the river so far.

10. Marilao River, Philippines


The Marilao River flows through the Bulacan Province and drains into Manila Bay. It is the main drinking source for millions of residents.

Despite this, the waters are polluted by waste from leather companies, jewellery makers, and gold refineries. As a result, the waters even have tiny stones in them, which, when drunk, can cause serious medical issues. People close to the area often suffer from gastrointestinal disorders and respiratory issues.

11. Buriganga River, Bangladesh


Image by Emon Hossain on Unsplash

This river in Bangladesh is so polluted that it’s black. It gets its colour from years of pollution from tanneries, textile factories, dyes, and garment washing.

As you can imagine, it has made the water unsafe for consumption. The river also has a foul stench because it’s also a burial ground for many animals, a dumping ground for sewage waste, and a home for mountains of plastic bottles.

12. Mantaza-Riachuelo River, Argentina 


Image by Canva

This river is the most polluted in South America and sits in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province. This toxic waste causes high cancer risks to anyone living nearby.

It also goes by the name ‘Río Mataderos’, which translates to “the slaughterhouse river” because it sits so close to slaughterhouses and tanneries that dump their waste in the river. The river receives tonnes of sewage and heavy metals daily from chemical industries nearby.

13. Tijuana River, Mexico


Image by Juan Luis Alejos on Unsplash

Tijuana is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Usually, this is attributed to a high crime rate, but this city’s danger levels are also due to high pollution levels and water toxicity.

The river flows from Mexico and skirts San Diego. It only has a small stream of water, but its contaminated water flows from Mexico to the US, causing the San Diego beaches to receive sewage-polluted coastal waters.

14. Cuyahoga River, USA


Image by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Famously known as the river that burned, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio has been set on fire at least 14 times. It is precisely because of the dumping of waste that had a layer of oil lying on top of the water, which caused multiple fires.

The last fire happened in 1969, and the city has since made great strides in restoring the river’s water quality. It even has a few fish species swimming in it. However, it is still somewhat polluted.

15. River Nile, Egypt


Image by Vincent FOURNEAU on Unsplash

The Nile River is one of the most iconic African landmarks, so it really is a shame that it’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

The river has a large concentration of heavy metals like lead, nickel, cadmium, and copper in its sediment. In addition, it also has a high volume of agricultural drainage and industrial waste in its waters.

To help save it, many civilians are volunteering to help clean out waste and create awareness around recycling.

16. Doce River, Brazil


Image by Canva

Running through Brazil’s southwest region, the Doce River is important to the country’s economy. Its Fundão dam held tons of freshwater for steelmaking.

But, in 2015, disaster struck. The dam broke, causing its water to get contaminated by 50 million tons of sludge and killing 19 people. This disaster also killed crops, devastated wildlife, and polluted drinking water.

Because of this, it is considered Brazil’s biggest environmental disaster and has made it the country’s most polluted river.

17. Passaic River, USA


Image by Canva

The Passaic River is located in New Jersey, USA. The river is the most polluted in the state due to its high volumes of microplastics, mercury, and dioxin caused by manufacturing waste.

High levels of mercury and dioxin are particularly worrying as this can cause cancer, reproductive issues, and developmental problems in children. However, the water is still used as drinking water for many after being treated.

18. Danube River, Europe


Image by Andres Garcia on Unsplash

The Danube River is the second longest river in Europe and has the highest number of contaminations in the continent. This is due to the amount of antibiotics found in it, which upsets the natural ecosystems.

The biggest pollutant is the toxic waste discarded by Serbia’s factories. But, the river also has high amounts of plastic pollution, heavy metals, oil, and pesticides from other countries like Slovenia and Austria.

There are a few areas you can enjoy a swim in the river through where toxin levels are low. These are in towns like Dunabogdány, Nagymaros, and Szentendre in Hungary.

19. Salween, Southeast Asia


Image by Canva

The Salween River goes by many names, including Nu and Thanlwin. It is the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia and flows through China, Myanmar, and Thailand.

The river used to be a big source of fishing in the area but has since been abandoned due to the high levels of pollution. The biggest influence is textile factories dumping toxic waste and plastics in the waters, which in turn has caused wildlife to disappear.

20. Rio Grande, USA


Image by Canva

The Rio Grande starts in the Colorado Rockies and stretches to the Gulf of Mexico. It also flows through the Big Bend region in Texas.

The river is mainly polluted by toxic industrial waste from factories nearby. Laredo, a town near Texas, is in the biggest danger due to the pollution as it gets persistent raw sewage pollution from the Rio Grande.

21. Murray-Darling River, Australia

Most polluted rivers in the world (Murray-Darling River, Australia)

Image by Canva

The Murray-Darling River basin sits in the southeastern part of Australia. The biggest reason for pollution in this river is actually due to land erosion, waste dumping, septic leakage from housing nearby, and cold water pollution. All of these cause a rise in salinity, negatively affecting farmers and wildlife.

There are currently efforts to improve the water levels, but it will take time to see results.

22. Indus River, Pakistan


Image by Rahul Pathania on Unsplash

The Indus River plays an important part in Pakistan’s economy. It sits in the Punjab province and is responsible for the nation’s farming production.

So, it’s quite sad to hear that it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the area. 40% of the river’s solid waste is plastic. Its agriculture production is also due to the river’s high toxicity levels, as it has high levels of pesticides, nitrates, and phosphates, contributing to the 86% loss of the mangrove forest in the area.

23. Niger River, West Africa


Image by Michel Isamuna on Unsplash

The Niger River spans 2,600 miles and crosses Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Mali, and Guinea. Along with the Nile River, this river is one of Africa’s most toxic water sources, even though about 100 million people depend on it.

The Niger Delta is a significant source of crude oil, which seems to be a catch-22. Since 1958, this river has had about 7000 incidents of crude oil spills. And the number continues to grow yearly.

Final Thoughts on Most Polluted Rivers in the World

It is imperative to remember that each water source was once a beautiful stream that was corrupted due to humans and industrialisation. Looking at the long list of polluted rivers in the world could perhaps be a chance for us to look at ways to live sustainably instead.

Not all hope is lost, though. Take a look at the most beautiful lakes in the world to lift your spirits.

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