13 of the Most Polluted Rivers in the World: 2 Are in the USA!

Written by Kristen Holder
Updated: August 7, 2023
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Rivers are a geological artery for life because they provide a channel for precious freshwater through land. Only a dozen or so rivers are responsible for 90% of the plastic waste in our oceans despite there being hundreds of rivers on the planet.

Due to urban, industrial, and agricultural pollution, some rivers are now toxic. When industries around the world create toxic wastewater, only 20% of it ends up being treated. The rest ends up in rivers, oceans, and lakes.

In some areas, the result is no access to sanitary drinking water. Dirty drinking water leads to more deaths than all forms of violence combined, including war. These rivers all have huge human populations living around them and utilizing them. However, these lifelines have little to no waste management systems in place, which has proven disastrous.

What are 13 of the most polluted rivers in the world? We’ll find out now.

Over 40% of the population of India looks to the Ganges as their source of drinking water.

1. Salween River in Southeast Asia

Salween River or Thanlwin River

Textile factories helped make the Salween River one of the most polluted in the world.

©Amnat Phuthamrong/Shutterstock.com

This river winds through Tibet, China, and Myanmar. Textile factories are a huge contributor to the river’s toxicity. Entire villages have given up on fishing to collect plastic and other recyclables from the river. They used to fish for things like catfish.

2. Ganges River in India

Ganges river

Despite being highly contaminated, Hindus bathe in the Ganges River.

©Marcos del Mazo/Shutterstock.com

There is a goddess in Hinduism named Ganga, who is the personification of the Ganges River. Her role is forgiveness and purification, which makes the restoration and conservation of the Ganges even more important to many Indians.

Sins can be cleansed away for Hindus in the Ganges River. That leads to millions bathing in the river every year even though it’s very polluted. There is a layer of plastic garbage that floats on the surface.

Mass amounts of raw sewage end up in this river that over 2 billion people rely upon. Despite this, over 40% of the population of India looks to the Ganges as their source of drinking water.

More than a billion gallons of toxic materials are dumped in the river each day. Corpses are thrown into the water, yet untreated water is used for cooking. Water-related illnesses are common when a person contacts the water in any way.

3. Yellow River in China

There is so much toxic waste in the Yellow River that it can’t be used for agriculture.


The fastest-growing economy in the world is China due to its speed toward industrialization. In the process, these industries have dumped so much toxic waste into the Yellow River that it can’t even be used for agriculture.

There is natural sediment that’s yellow-colored, which helps to make the river look even dirtier. It is the third-longest river in Asia. More than 4 billion tons of pollutants are dumped into the river every year.

The Yellow River is a drinking water source for many people, which has caused a rise in water-related illnesses.

4. Mississippi River in the United States

The Mississippi River’s mouth into the Gulf of Mexico is devoid of life.


More than 18 million Americans rely on the Mississippi River for drinking water despite it being heavily polluted. Industry, agriculture, and sewage are responsible for contaminating the waters.

Agricultural runoff containing nitrogen-based fertilizers gets into the river and reduces the oxygen levels of the water. This has caused a mass die-off of aquatic life. An 8,000 square mile dead zone exists at the mouth of the river into the Gulf of Mexico. Almost no life exists there.

5. Yangtze River in China

Yangtze River

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia.

©mark stephens photography/Shutterstock.com

Oxygen levels have been reduced in the water, which has caused a mass die-off of life in the river. It is the third-longest river in the world and the longest in Asia. More plastic in the ocean originates from the Yangtze than anywhere else on Earth.

6. Buriganga River in Bangladesh

Buriganga River

The water in the Buriganga River is so polluted that it’s black.

©Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com

The Buriganga River is the biggest in Bangladesh. “Old Ganges” is the English translation of Buriganga. The city of Dhaka, with a population of around 10 million people, is most reliant on this river. The water is so polluted that it’s now black. Despite this, millions still rely on it as their main water source. There is no aquatic life left.

There are tanneries along the river that contaminate the water. There is a lot of garbage floating in the river, along with medical waste, dead animals, raw sewage, and discarded petroleum.

7. Pasig River in the Philippines

Pasig River

The Pasig River is used for sewage, garbage, and drinking water by slums along its banks.

©MDV Edwards/Shutterstock.com

The usual player, industrial waste, is the main contributor to the deterioration of this river. It is considered biologically dead since no plants or animals can survive in its waters.

As this river runs through Manila, it plays host to slums caused by extreme poverty. The river is used as the only source of water, sewage, and trash disposal for these miniature cities.

8. Mantaza-Riachuelo River in Argentina

Mantaza Riachuelo River

Nicknamed the Slaughterhouse River, the Mantaza-Riachuelo stinks because so much slaughterhouse waste is in it.

©Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock.com

Raw sewage is released into this river in huge quantities. It is the most polluted river in South America.

The Mantaza-Riachuelo is nicknamed the Slaughterhouse River because of the amount of waste that tanneries and slaughterhouses along its banks produce. All this rot makes the entire river stink.

9. Citarum River in Indonesia

Citarum River

Mercury levels are more than 100 times what they should be in the Citarum River.

©Bastian AS/Shutterstock.com

More than 2,000 factories dump their waste into the Citarum River. Mercury levels are more than one hundred times higher than they should be due to industrial waste. The river itself stinks because it is so polluted.

Over 30 million people use the Citarum River as their primary water source. Despite its toxicity, it is still used for domestic and agricultural purposes.

Dead fish are a common sight in the river. Their habitat has been devastated to the point that fishermen have turned to sifting through the river’s plastic waste. Selling plastic is more profitable than trying to catch contaminated animals that barely exist.

10. Sarno River in Italy

Sarno River

While the source of the Sarno River is still clean, downstream is filthy.

©Pasquale Senatore/Shutterstock.com

The source of this river is still safe to use for drinking water. The farther you go downstream, the dirtier the water gets from agricultural runoff and human industry.

The Sarno River frequently floods, and when it does, the toxins in the water saturate the ground and cause soil degradation. The surface of the water is often covered with foam created by chemicals and oil.

11. Yamuna River in India

Yamuna River

The pH of the Yamuna River is much higher than it should be.


India’s second most polluted river is the Yamuna which is a tributary of the Ganges. Raw sewage, industrial, and agricultural waste is dumped in the Yamuna.

Most waters have a pH of 7, but the Yamuna River’s pH is 11. At this point, even if proper water treatment was put into place, it probably wouldn’t help.

12. Marilao River in the Philippines

Marilao River

The Marilao River is so polluted that it can’t sustain life.

©JFVelasquez Floro / Creative Commons – License

This is a main source of water for millions of people despite it being polluted with human, mining, and tannery waste. It is another river with so many toxins in it that water oxygen levels are negligible.

There is no life in this river as the water can’t sustain it.

13. Tijuana River in Mexico and the United States

Tijuana River

When the Tijuana River dries up, the river bed dust is dangerous.

©Chad Zuber/Shutterstock.com

Even though this river is small, the city of Tijuana heavily pollutes this river which dumps into the Pacific Ocean in the United States.

There are high amounts of agricultural pesticides in the water as well as most of the raw sewage for Tijuana. The river does dry up sometimes, and when this happens, the dust from the riverbed can cause illness.

Summary of 13 of the Most Polluted Rivers in the World

Here’s a recap of 13 of the world’s most polluted rivers that we took a look at.

1Salween RiverSoutheast Asia
2Ganges RiverIndia
3Yellow RiverChina
4Mississippi RiverUnited States
5Yangtze RiverChina
6Buriganga RiverBangladesh
7Pasig RiverPhilippines
8Mantaza-Riachuelo RiverArgentina
9Citarum RiverIndonesia
10Sarno RiverItaly
11Yamuna RiverIndia
12Marilao RiverPhilippines
13Tijuana RiverMexico and the United States

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves doting on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with whimsical adventures geared toward exploring her new home.

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