India’s great Ganges, the 1,569-mile holy river that rises in the Himalayas and traverses northern India before emptying into the Bay of Bengal, is now at the point of ultrapollution. As a lifeline to hundreds of millions of people, it supplies drinking, bathing and irrigation water that sustains life.
However, Ganges river pollution puts both people and wildlife at risk of disease and toxic waste. In the same way that people are littering the world’s highest peak, human pressure has made the Ganges one of the ten most polluted rivers in the world. River clean up is vital.
River Ganges in Indian Life
The River Ganges supports many areas of life in India. Hindus consider the river as holy, and as such, it supports ceremonial functions along its length. Not only is the water believed to be sacred and purifying, but the river itself forms an important part of the death ritual. Cremation alongside the Ganges and scattering ashes into the waters ensures passage into the afterlife for believers.
For the living, bathing in the Ganges is purifying, both physically and through spiritually washing away sins. Each year, devotees gather along the river to worship and scatter offerings.
The river and its many tributaries also support basic water needs for populations along its course. According to a BioMed Central article, around 400 million people draw water for bathing, cooking and agriculture from the river, often very close to where sanitation drains empty sewage and industrial effluent into the water course. As populations increase, pressure on the river rises, and Ganges river pollution hits critical levels.
Sources of Ganges River Pollution
Pollutants come from human activity along the riverbanks, with more than one billion gallons of waste entering each day, according to The New Yorker. Alteration in water flow from dams and irrigation canals, where reduced flow causes stagnation and concentration, compounds the problem.
Three-quarters of this is organic, coming from human sewage and waste disposal. A Reuters infographic notes the volume as around 4.8 billion liters (almost 1.3 billion gallons) of sewage every day, exceeding the treatment capacity of only one billion liters per day.
Pipes discharge raw, untreated sewage directly into the Ganges. As a 2016 report showed, only 78% of India’s sewage is treated. At heavily populated outflows, the levels of fecal coliforms — an indication of raw sewage contamination — are hundreds of times higher than safe limits. In 2016, 41 out of the 45 sampling stations along the river showed concentrations exceeding maximum levels. Often, sewage treatment also fails to effectively remove pathogens, so the risk of contracting diseases — such as amoebic dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid — from bathing in the Ganges is high.
Dumping household garbage into waste sites that are prone to flooding during monsoons washes trash into the river. Industry and agricultural run-off also pollute the water. Tanneries along the banks use heavy metals, such as chromium and arsenic, to treat water buffalo hides. Although legislation to promote effluent treatment is in place, discharge often results in river contamination.
Cremation alongside the banks is commonn and this contributes to Ganges river pollution as well. Firewood needed to complete cremation is expensive, and for many, being interred in the river after death leads to religious salvation. Decomposing bodies and body parts are common among the floating garbage and toxic foam, according to a Pulitzer Center report.
River Clean Up Urgency
Aside from increased disease from waterborne pathogens and visible pollution from floating garbage and decomposing corpses, people using the river also risk developing cancer from toxins. Cleaning up the Ganges has thus been a priority since the 1980s.
India’s top environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, also imposed a ban on dumping within 1,640 feet (0.5 km) of a 310-mile heavily polluted stretch. A 2017 BBC report also mentions fines for waste disposal into the river and the movement of tanneries away from its banks.
Governments have imposed limits on tannery wastewater, requiring treatment prior to discharge. They’ve also driven efforts to modernize sewage treatment in big cities. According to The Conversation, increased population density in big cities translates into worse fecal contamination. Although the intention to modernize is there, efforts are slow moving, partly due to failing infrastructure and the complexity of installing modern systems in ancient architecture. Ancient doesn’t always mix well with modern and, as a result, a river is being poisoned.