Cleaning the Ganga: A troubling tale of neglect and impending disaster

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Cleaning the Ganga: A troubling tale of neglect and impending disaster

Monday, 19 February 2024 | Prabha Gupta

With sewage and industrial toxins contaminating its waters, the Ganga, again faces an urgent call to action

The Ganges River, often called 'Ma Ganga,' by devout Hindus holds profound significance in Hindu culture, believed to have divine origins according to sacred texts. However, despite its revered status, the Ganges faces a dire threat - contamination. It's not just a river; it's a lifeline, yet its waters are woefully polluted, threatening the health and well-being of millions.

India's population explosion, coupled with rapid urbanization and industrialization, has turned the Ganges into a dumping ground for toxins, sewage, and industrial waste. The consequences are dire: water unfit even for basic activities like bathing, let alone consumption. The situation is particularly dire in areas like Kanpur and Varanasi, where human activities directly contribute to pollution levels.

The scale of pollution is staggering, with reports indicating severe contamination along the river's course. Sewage treatment facilities are inadequate, leading to a massive discharge of untreated waste into the Ganges. Industrial pollution compounds the issue, with tanneries, distilleries, and other industries adding toxic pollutants to the river.

The relentless expansion of population, coupled with the ever-improving living standards and rapid industrial and urban growth, has laid bare the vulnerability of our water resources, with rivers bearing the brunt of this degradation. The illustrious Ganges, despite its revered status, is not immune to this onslaught. The decline in water quality directly affects communities, with certain stretches of the Ganges now deemed unsuitable even for basic activities like bathing. Compounding this issue are the looming threats of global climate change, the melting of glaciers affecting the Ganges' flow, and the adverse impacts of infrastructure projects in its upper reaches, all demanding a comprehensive and urgent response.

Kanpur, situated in Uttar Pradesh, emerges as a poignant example of this pollution crisis. As one of the most densely populated cities in the state, its residents engage in daily activities like washing clothes, bathing, and even relieving themselves directly into water bodies, exacerbating pollution levels. Following closely behind is Varanasi, another significant contributor to Ganges pollution.

A damning report revealed that 37 out of the 41 locations along the river were plagued by moderate to severe pollution levels. Astonishingly, only the water at the Haridwar Barrage managed to meet drinking water standards, making it a rare beacon of cleanliness amidst a sea of contamination. This stark reality underscores the urgent need for concerted efforts to preserve and restore the Ganges' pristine waters.

Within the Ganga basin, an astonishing 12,000 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage is generated, yet the current treatment capacity stands at a mere 4,000 mld. This glaring disparity results in approximately 3,000 mld of untreated sewage being discharged directly into the Ganges from towns categorized as Class I and II along its banks. Despite efforts, only around 1,000 mld of treatment capacity has been established to date.

The industrial sector also plays a significant role in polluting the Ganges, accounting for roughly 20% of the overall pollution volume. However, due to the toxic and non-biodegradable nature of industrial waste, its impact is disproportionately severe. 

Tanneries in Kanpur, along with distilleries, paper mills, and sugar mills in the Kosi, Ramganga, and Kali river catchments, collectively add to the pollution burden, affecting water sources relied upon by an estimated 600 million people. Despite efforts to monitor and control pollution, the majority of locations along the river still fail to meet even basic water quality standards.

The situation demands urgent action. The Namami Gange program, initiated by the Indian government, represents a significant step towards cleaning up the river. With billions of dollars allocated to sewage treatment facilities and sewer line construction, it aims to address the root causes of pollution and restore the Ganges to its pristine state.

The success of the Namami Gange program hinges on effective implementation and sustained efforts to combat pollution. Thus far, the Namami Gange program has incurred expenditures exceeding 328 billion rupees ($3.77 billion), earmarking funds for the establishment of over 170 new sewage facilities and laying down approximately 5,211 kilometres of sewer lines-an expanse equivalent to crossing the Atlantic Ocean. This initiative stands as an intriguing litmus test in the worldwide endeavour to purify our water bodies. Indeed, if the challenge of cleansing a river held sacred by hundreds of millions proves insurmountable, what prospects remain for tackling similar tasks elsewhere?

The Ganges is not just India's river; it's a symbol of hope and spirituality for millions worldwide. Its cleansing is not just a matter of environmental conservation but also a moral imperative. As the world grapples with the consequences of pollution and climate change, the fate of the Ganges serves as a litmus test for our collective commitment to protecting our planet's precious resources. If we fail to clean the Ganges, what hope do we have for the rest of our rivers and seas?

(The writer is a social worker and a business coach; views are personal)

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