NEW DELHI, India — The Ganges River in India begins high up in the Himalayas. The water downstream should be as clean and clear as the snow it comes from; however, because of growing industry and unhealthy practices, the river, along with India’s other water sources, is polluted.
India is hydrated by three main rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the underground Sarawati. 400 million people depend on the Ganges as a water source. Of these rivers, the Ganges is the holiest and, unfortunately, the filthiest. The river holds special significance to Hindus who believe that bathing in its water purifies the soul and allows for freedom from reincarnation. Devout Hindus make pilgrimages to the Ganges’ bank to bathe and drink the waters, often in their dying moments.
While the Ganges holds significance to people worldwide, it is growing increasingly unclean. India’s problem with water pollution comes from rapid population growth and insufficient treatment facilities.
Much of the pollution comes from domestic waste. Only 18 percent of sewage in India is treated properly; the remainder of waste often finds itself in India’s rivers. When cities around the country produce 33,200 million liters of sewage a day, the effects of human waste makes a significant impact on the heath of the rivers. New Delhi alone pumps 1,900 million liters of untreated sludge into the Yamuna River.
The growth of industry in the country also adds to the pollution problem. Factories along the riverbanks dump toxic waste into the rivers, leaving the country’s water sources with higher than average nitrate levels. In addition, factories involved in technology production use the rivers at their disposal, leading to further pollution from heavy metals.
The Ganges also suffers from a unique source of contamination. Because of its significance in Hindu tradition, it is a common burial ground for devout believers. Some 3,000 corpses are found floating in the river, and crematories along the banks dump the ashes from another 30,000 bodies each year. As a result, the river contains increased amounts of bacteria.
The bacteria poses a threat, as it can lead to fatal diseases like typhoid, dysentery and cholera. Diarrhea, one of the most common killers among young children, is also spread through the consumption of the contaminated water.
The risks which accompany drinking polluted water have created a water shortage in India. Water shortage occurs when a country has 1,700 cubic meters of safe, drinkable water per person per year. India has 1,000 cubic meters a year for 1.2 billion people. To put this into perspective, the United States has 8,000 cubic meters of usable water. The number of people living without access to clean water has been down since 1990, with no sign of alleviation. In 2008, 17 percent of the population did not have access to fresh water. Today, as much as 53 percent of the population does not have access to a real toilet.
Water pollution is a problem deeply ingrained in India’s infrastructure. Part of the problem is the lack of functioning treatment plants. In 2011, only 160 out of the 8,000 towns in the country had a working sewer system and plant. The treatment plants that exist along the river basins are often poorly staffed and outfitted with ineffective technology. As a result, a small percentage of the water is treated and safe for drinking, bathing or cooking.
India has tried to curb the pollution, but has had little success thus far. The 1984 Ganga Action Plan aimed to clean up the river by 2009, but failed to do so. The country is now on its 12th five-year plan. The completion of the plan is scheduled for 2017. The five-year plan addresses issues from contamination to the depletion of water levels caused by rerouting for agriculture.
Fortunately, the courts are getting involved. The High Court has ordered the construction of 12 treatment plants and has halted all other major building in the river basin. In addition, measures have been taken to stop diversion of the river upstream and to close 100 tanneries in the town of Kanpur. These are some of the small first steps in reducing the amount of future pollution.
These changes, however, come with resistance. It will cost India millions of dollars to clean up the river, according to the World Bank, not to mention the thousands of citizens whose businesses will be forced to either adapt to the new regulations or shut down completely.
People are accustomed to dumping waste in the river, sending loved ones’ ashes to their final resting place and bathing in the waters. Convincing citizens to pay for cleaner water has proven a difficult task. However, the future of India’s river and its people relies on change and decreasing pollution must be a universal priority.
– Caitlin Thompson
Sources: DW, Huffington Post, India Water Portal, The Economist, NBR, National Geographic, New York Times
Photo: Joey L.