Water

Can we save Ganga?

The Ganga is getting political attention. What does it take to clean the river? Down To Earth team travels to the most polluted stretch of the river in Uttar Pradesh

 
By Sunita Narain, Sushmita Sengupta, Soma Basu
Last Updated: Tuesday 17 July 2018

Can we save Ganga?

Sisamau Nala, Kanpur's most polluted and largest open drain, spews domestic waste into the Ganga (Photos: Vikas Choudhary)

UMA SHANKAR is fidgety as he rows his boat in the Ganga in Varanasi. His mouth, full of betel nut juice, is swollen like a water balloon. His head is pounding in the eagerness to spit it out. At such moments earlier, he would conveniently empty his mouth into the Gan-ga and take tourists around, telling stories of the holy river and the ghats. But the 40-year-old Nishad, a community hailed as children of water in mythology, is in a rush to reach the other side of the river. He cannot dare to spit the betel nut juice into the water. After all, Union water resources minister Uma Bharti has recently announced that people found spitting in the Ganga could be fined Rs 10,000 or jailed for three days.

Shankar steals a glance at the camera of Down To Earth photographer, scared that just one picture of him spitting may cost him his boat. His attempt is laudable. But what would a little spit do in the sea of sewage that is spilled into the river every day. In 1986, the government had launched the first phase of Ganga Action Plan (GAP-I) to protect the country’s largest river basin. It selected stretches of the river along 25 cities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. In 1993, GAP-II was initiated which included the river’s tributaries—the Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and the Mahanadi. On February 20, 2009, the Union government gave the Ganga the status of a National River and re-launched GAP with a reconstituted National Ganga River Basin Authority. The re-launched GAP took into account the entire river basin and emphasised the river’s need to have adequate water to maintain its ecological flow. But five years after the re-launch, pollution levels are still, to say the least, grim. Rivers have the ability to clean themselves—to assimilate and treat biological waste using sunlight and oxygen. But the Ganga gets no time to breathe and revive. There are more settlements and many more people who live along its banks. All take water and return only waste. The Ganga dies, not once but many times in its 2,500 km journey from the Gangotri in the Himalayas to Diamond Harbour in the Bay of Bengal (see ‘Highly polluted stretches’).

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The July 2013 report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows unacceptable levels of faecal coliform, a clear sign of human excreta, all along the river’s mainstream (see ‘Faecal coliform levels...’). But it is even more worrying that faecal coliform levels are increasing even in upper reaches like Rudraprayag and Devprayag, where the river’s oxygenating ability is the highest. In these parts, water withdrawal for hydropower plants has put the river’s health in danger. As the Ganga flows down the plains, water is taken away for irrigation and drinking, so much so that during winters and peak summer months the river goes dry in many parts, and only sewage flows between its banks. The holy river is, thus, converted into a stinking sewer.

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Why so polluted?

Thirty-six settlements, classified as Class-I cities, contribute 96 per cent of wastewater draining into the river. According to CPCB’s 2013 report, 2,723 million litres per day (mld) of domestic sewage is discharged by cities located along the river. But even this may be a gross underestimate as the calculation is based on the water that is supplied in the cities. As city managers often do not supply all the water that is used—much is groundwater—the actual sewage is often higher. This is what CPCB found when it measured the discharge from drains into the Ganga—6,000 mld was discharged into the river (see ‘State of pollution’).

State of pollutionNeedless to say, the capacity to treat this sewage is inadequate. But it is even smaller, if we consider two facts: one, that the gap between sewage generation and treatment remains the same every year—55 per cent. So even as the treatment capacity is added, more sewage gets added because of population growth. The situation worsens if the actual measured discharge from drains is taken to estimate the pollution load. Then the gap between what is installed and what is generated goes up to 80 per cent.

Over and above this, 764 industrial units along the main stretch of the river and its tributaries Kali and Ramganga discharge 500 mld of mostly toxic waste. All efforts to rein in this pollution have failed.

The horror does not end here. These cities have grown without planning and investment, so most do not have underground drainage networks. Even in Allahabad and Varanasi 80 per cent of the areas are without sewers. Waste is generated but not conveyed to treatment plants. There is no power to run treatment plants; bankrupt municipalities and water utilities have no money to pay for operations. CPCB checked 51 out of 64 sewage treatment plants (STPs) along the Ganga in 2013. It found only 60 per cent of installed capacity of the plants was being used; 30 per cent of the STPs were not even operational. So actual treatment is even less, and untreated waste discharged into the river even more.

Ganga’s journey through Uttar Pradesh—from Kanpur through Unnao, Fatehpur to Raibareilly and then Allahabad and Varanasi via Mirzapur—is killing. The river does not get the chance to assimilate the waste poured into it from cities and industries. It is only in Allahabad that some cleaner water is added through the Yamuna, which helps it to recover somewhat. Then as it moves towards Varanasi, sewage is poured in again. It dies again.

This land is where the poorest of India live; where urban governance is almost non-existent; and pollution thrives. In 2013, CPCB identified 33 drains along the Kanpur-Varanasi stretch with high biological oxygen demand (BOD), the key indicator of pollution. Of the 33, seven are big offenders, with high BOD load.

Uttar Pradesh has 687 grossly polluting industries, finds CPCB. These largely small scale, often illegal units—tanneries, sugar, pulp and paper and chemical—contribute 270 mld of wastewater. But what really matters is the location of the plants. While over 400 tanneries contribute only 8 per cent of the industrial discharge, they spew highly toxic effluent into the river and are located as a cluster near Kanpur. So the concentration of pollution is high. It is alarming that not much is happening to control pollution. The law is helpless. In 2013, an inspection of 404 industrial units by CPCB showed that all but 23 did not comply with the law. Directions have been issued and closure notices served. But it is business as usual.

Pollution has unnerved the people living along the river. After Uma Shankar manages to rinse his mouth, he says, “We cannot wash or bathe or catch fish. Why are the drains that pour in the city’s filth not plugged? People talk of cleaning the Ganga. The slogan should be ‘save the Ganga’.”

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  • Excellent. I studied at

    Excellent.

    I studied at University of Roorkee(Now IIT) for my Ph.D in 80s. We used to go to Ganges canal in the evening and sitting on the banks put our feet in the Ganges. Even in Summer the water is chill. A local version is Ganges water cures skin diseases. In the past milk cans were dipped in the Ganges river with a rope overnight. The Ganges water serves as refrigerator to preserve milk from spoilage. Most of the agricultural operations wherever Ganges river passes are through Ganges water only. I didn't find agricultural pumpsets in the region. Such is the role of Ganges both sacred and economic force.

    Ganges belongs to the whole Nation and it is the duty of every Indian to preserve the sanctity and purity of the river.

    Save Ganga Movement is a widespread Gandhian non-violent movement supported by saints and popular social activists across the Indian States Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in support of a free Ganga. The movement is supported by Ganga Seva Abhiyanam, Pune-based National Women's Organisation (NWO) besides those of many other like-minded organisations and with the moral support from many religious leaders, spiritual and political, scientists, environmentalists, writers and social activists. Ganga Calling ÔÇô Save Ganga is another such campaign supported by Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action (ICELA).
    Causes

    Ganges is the largest and the most sacred river of India with enormous spiritual, cultural, and physical influence. It provides water to about 40% of India's population in 11 states. It is estimated that the livelihoods of over 500 million people in India are dependent upon the river, and that one-third of India's population lives within the Ganges Basin. Despite this magnitude of influence and control by the river over present and future of the country, it is allegedly under direct threat from various man made and natural environmental issues.
    Pollution
    River Ganges flows through the most densely populated regions of India passing 29 cities with population over 100,000, 23 cities with population between 50,000 and 100,000, and about 48 towns. A sizeable proportion of the effluents in Ganges are caused by this population through domestic usage like bathing, laundry and public defecation. Countless tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and hospitals contribute to the pollution of the Ganges by dumping untreated toxic and non-biodegradable waste into it. It is this sheer volume of pollutants released into the river every day that are causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem and contributing to significant sanitation issues.
    Dams
    Built in 1854 during the British colonisation of India, the Haridwar dam has led to decay of the Ganges by greatly diminishing the flow of the river. TheFarakka Barrage was built originally to divert fresh water into the Bhagirathi River but has since caused an increase of salinity in the Ganges, having a damaging effect on the ground water and soil along the river. Apart from this, Bangladesh and India faced major tensions due to this barrage. The government of India planned about 300 dams on the Ganges in the near future and the tributaries despite a government-commissioned green panel report that has recommended scrapping 34 of the dams citing environmental concerns.
    Global warming
    Gangotri glacier which feeds the river Ganges and 30.2 km long and between 0.5 and 2.5 km wide is one of the largest in the Himalaya. However, Due to global warming it has been receding since 1780, although studies show its retreat quickened after 1971. Over the last 25 years, Gangotri glacier has retreated more than 850 meters, with a recession of 76 meters from 1996 to 1999 alone. The UN 2007 Climate Change Report has suggested that the glacial flow may completely stop by 2030, at which point the Ganges would be reduced to a seasonal river during the monsoon season.
    Failure of Ganga Action Plan
    The Ganga action plan was, launched by Shri Rajeev Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India on 14 Jan. 1986 with the main objective of pollution abatement, to improve the water quality by Interception, Diversion and treatment of domestic sewage and present toxic and industrial chemical wastes from identified grossly polluting units entering in to the river. The other objectives of the Ganga Action Plan are as under.
    ÔÇó Control of non-point pollution from agricultural run off, human defecation, cattle wallowing and throwing of unburnt and half burnt bodies into the river.
    ÔÇó Research and Development to conserve the biotic, diversity of the river to augment its productivity.
    ÔÇó New technology of sewage treatment like Up-flow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket (UASB) and sewage treatment through afforestation has been successfully developed.
    ÔÇó Rehabilitation of soft-shelled turtles for pollution abatement of river have been demonstrated and found useful.
    ÔÇó Resource recovery options like production of methane for energy generation and use of aquaculture for revenue generation have been demonstrated.
    ÔÇó To act as trend setter for taking up similar action plans in other grossly polluted stretches in other rivers.
    But the efforts to decrease the pollution level in the river became abortive even after spending Rs 9017.1 million (~190 million USD adjusting to inflation). Therefore, this plan was withdrawn on 31 March 2000. This plan is described as failure by many scientist and NGOs in their studies.

    Ganga is life save it.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Good article. This is same

    Good article. This is same even with Musi River in Hyderabad. However, I doubt on the quantum of waste water generated -- water supplied and water extracted from ground water. In Hyderabad alone it comes around 2000 mld!!! What about industries operating illegally!!! Yet the article -- good job.

    In addition to these point source pollutants there is another non-point source pollution through chemical inputs agriculture technology. This pollution enters the river with rainwater runoff. There is no way to treat this pollutant except through changing the technology. That is chemical inputs to organic inputs. Is this possible when the governments are run by the MNCs support???

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Why we r not raising the

    Why we r not raising the voice on Factories which directly disposed their water into the River without treating -Primary, Secondary, Territory. Legislation have to be made that all the effluents leaving on River ganga should have the Quality which could use for other purpose nor polluting the river...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Hi.. I am a environmental engg..
    We have a pollution Problem about our holly river the ganga nd it is our responsibilty to clean the river.. .
    Bt i suggest if we 1st treat the waste water of small small area by making pond,nd water centrigation nd some natrural treatment process because these waste water direct fell into the river if we 1st treat this water so we can reduce the river pollution.....

    Posted by: Brij Shankar | one year ago | Reply