As countries continue to advance technologically and the general world population rapidly increases, the amount of pollution in our waters, land and air continues to grow, too. 

Polluted water is a result of harmful substances like chemicals, microorganisms, or waste contaminating a water source. Consequently, it’s harmful to the lives of both humans and animals.

So, what are the most polluted rivers in the world? Here are the top 12:

1. Citarum River, Indonesia

The first river on our list is the Citarum River located in West Indonesia.  Because the Citarum is situated in an area largely consumed by textile mills, tons of waste is deposited into it every day. 

To be exact, 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater are dumped directly into the waters every day. Yes, you heard right! This is the amount of waste dumped right into the river on a regular basis. No doubts, this makes the water undrinkable. 

Sadly, this body of water is so polluted with waste that most of the fish and marine life have disappeared. It’s so bad that if you were to stand on the river bank and look down, the water you’d normally see would be replaced with trash and waste.  

To make matters significantly worse, the Citarum River serves as a life source for more than 25 million people. It’s the source of water for the Jaitluhur Reservoir which provides most of the water supply for the city’s capital. 

In short, millions depend on this extremely polluted body of water for electricity, water, and agriculture. President Joko Widodo initiated a seven-year clean-up program intended to make it water drinkable by 2025. 

2. Ganges River, India


One of the most famous rivers in the world, the Ganges River has now become one of the most polluted. 

This body of water is over 2,400 kilometers long and is filled with sewage, animal waste, pesticides, and many other extremely harmful chemicals. The Ganges sources over half a billion people, yet is considered hazardous. 

The bacteria level in this polluted water is astronomically high and dangerous to anyone who goes near. However, the Ganges River is sacred to many citizens who practice Hinduism. As a river that has been a vital source for many, believers regularly take ritual baths and occasionally drink the water as part of those rituals. 

Because the government of India recognizes the religious and spiritual significance that the Ganges has on its people, efforts are now being made to clean it for the good and health of the people. It will take years, a team of doctors, and the help of the community, but a clean Ganges River means the people can freely and safely carry out their religious practices.

3. Matanza-Riachuelo River, Argentina

This next river is over 60 kilometers long and, like the Ganges, is filled with many harmful pollutants. 

The population of people who live near and depend on the river is significantly smaller than the two previous rivers but the effects are not any less harsh. More than 15,000 industries are regularly releasing chemicals into it every day. In fact, these businesses make up more than a third of the entire population. 

The types of chemicals in this polluted water vary. There are extremely high amounts of zinc, lead, nickel, and chromium. Most of the river’s nearby inhabitants, about 20,000 people, live in territories that have been deemed “unsuitable for human habitation.” So unsuitable that 80% of the river is not safe for drinking. 

Many of the inhabitants experience a list of health issues as a result of drinking and bathing in the water including: 

  • Diarrheal disease 
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Many forms of cancer

There are efforts underway to sanitize the body of water and stop the continuous pour of pollutants into the water. 

4. Buriganga River, Bangladesh


The Buriganga River runs through one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This body of water is a vital life source for thousands of lives but is easily one of the most polluted in the world. 

Many mills and factories line the banks of the river and most of the waste is deposited directly into it. The Buriganga is also filled with tons of household waste, sewage, plastic, and oil. In fact, the city releases about 4,500 tons of solid waste into its rivers every day making the water uninhabitable for any kind of marine life. 

Attempting to clean this body of water has been considered “impossible” by many locals and environmentalists. The government has taken some action to begin a clean-up but no real, long-lasting improvements have been made. 

Several local organizations work every day to make this polluted water safer for the locals and wildlife whose lives depend on this massive body of water. 

5. Yamuna River, India


The Yamuna River, also known as the Jumna River, has over 50 million citizens that depend on it for survival. The capital of India, New Delhi, typically dumps literal tons of sewage waste into it every day.

To make matters worse, it is sacred to the people who practice Hinduism. The Yamuna is ruled by a Goddess named Yama. Because of this, followers continue to flock to the river to exercise their religious practices despite its toxicity. 

India has spent millions of dollars with the intention of cleaning it and restoring it to what it once was but hasn’t had remarkable success. There is a notable lack of law enforcement that allows large cities like New Delhi to keep dumping waste into the river with little to no consequence. 

Lastly, because more the 15 million people live in unmarked, unofficial villages that aren’t connected to municipal sewer services, the river remains a dumping ground. 

6. Jordan River, Israel 

It’s no secret that the Jordan River is a prominent religious site, as it’s said to be the body of water that Jesus was baptized in. However, it may not be as well-known that the river is dangerously polluted and getting worse every day. 

This body of water has been used as dumping grounds for sewage by large cities for decades. The overexploited river is literally running out of water. It’s experiencing drought in several locations and can be considered to be at “absolute scarcity” at others. The river is sadly, now considered too polluted for baptisms. 

Luckily, many efforts are underway to help replenish and restore the sacred body of water. The country proposed a plan to increase the flow of water into Jordan from nearby lakes. Now, more than eight years into the plan, the progress has been slowed due to planning and funding problems. 

With much support from religious and environmental groups, there is hope for the Jordan River.

7. Yellow River, China

Known as China’s “mother river,” the Yellow River provides water for millions of residents, like many others on our list. Due to the development of many urban cities, it has become polluted due to lots of sewage and factory waste being deposited there. 

A third of it has been deemed unfit for agriculture and especially drinking. Industry and manufacturing are mostly to blame for this as the river is being treated as nothing more than a dumpsite. Manufacturing is a big part of the Chinese economy so finding a more eco-friendly way to dispose of the waste would actually cost the country millions.

Many locals and wildlife would say that’s a price worth paying considering that their livelihood depends on it. However, a campaign led by China’s Ministry of Water Resources is underway with the goal of regulating riverside waste and mining in nine regions alongside it. 

8. Marilao River, Philippines

Next up is the Marilao River of the Phillippines. Like the other polluted waters on this list, thousands of lives depend on this body of water to survive. The issue begins with significant amounts of waste being regularly deposited into this body of water. Most of the pollution comes from lead recycling facilities and a high number of tanneries that line the bank of the river. 

These companies dump a toxic chemical called chromium into the river, as well as lead and human sewage. This makes the water unsafe to drink or bathe in, which is a direct problem for the many surrounding rural villages. 

Steps have been taken to take control of the rapidly-increasing pollution with the first step is identifying the extent of the pollution. Certain non-government organizations have been leading this movement and have begun designing plans for a massive cleanup. 

9. Sarno River, Italy

The Sarno River is the most polluted river in Italy. The city regularly dumps untreated agricultural and industrial waste into it. To make matters substantially worse, the area experiences frequent flooding that causes spill-over of all the polluted waters into the nearby towns and cities that imposes an incredible health risk. 

In better news, there are plans underway to clean it. Work has already begun to remove over a million cubic meters of waste from the water and incentives are given to factories that work with the initiative to stop harmful dumping into the Sarno. 

10. Mississippi River, USA

The Mississippi River is the longest river in the United States and is known for its part in the country’s rich history. However, millions of pounds of very toxic chemicals like nitrate, arsenic, and benzene have been dumped into it. 

Unlike any of the other rivers on this list, the Mississippi is not depended on by millions for drinking water but it still poses a huge environmental threat to wildlife, the people, and land surrounding the river. 

There are initiatives in place to clean up the river but due to the lack of government funding, any work will take years and possibly even longer to complete. 

11. Cuyahoga River, USA

Second to last on our last is the Cuyahoga River in the state of Ohio. While still very polluted, it is the most different on our list because most of the pollution was so intense that the river regularly caught fire. Yes, the river caught fire!

Years of unregulated factory waste deposited in the river created a layer of oil. Used as a dumping ground, tons of debris floated on the surface of the water, which started the infamous fire of 1969. 

The idea of a river being so polluted that it caught on fire was so concerning that it encouraged the U.S.A. to take environmental protection a bit more seriously. 

12. Pasig River, Philippines 

Last on our list is the Pasig River. World War II and the population increase allowed the river to become severely polluted. Settlements and factories along with it regularly dumped waste into it. 

Over time, the use of the river began to decrease because of unpleasant odors that seeped from the water. Fishing was prohibited over 40 years ago and it was deemed biologically dead thirty years ago. Since then, substantial efforts have been made to clean the river and it has made considerable progress. 

Still, this polluted water has a long way to go until it will be considered “clean.” 

Bottom Line

Millions of people around the world depend on the rivers nearest them to survive, as they should be able to. However, industrialization and a general disregard for the environment have made these bodies of water not only polluted but also unsafe. 

Efforts are being made to correct this problem, but we still have a long way to go. If you’d like to help, look up non-government organizations online that you can join and lend a hand in cleaning up our rivers.