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“The River Ganges Long Decline” by Payal Sampat, WorldWatch

Sampat, P. “The River Ganges Long Decline.” World Watch, July/August 2009, Volume 9, No.4.

The river Ganges’ long decline.

By Payal Sampat, World Watch

July-August 1996

Abstract: The Ganges River is slowly declining due to the steady flow of municipal and industrial waste. Municipal sewage accounts for 80% by volume of total waste dumped into the river, while industrial waste constitutes 15%. Ironically, although the river is viewed as a figure of purification not only by Hindus but by other religious denominations, Indians persist in dumping the ashes of their dead into it. Government efforts to clean up the river have failed due to poor planning, technological mismanagement and corruption.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 Worldwatch Institute

In the basin of a half-billion souls, purification and pollution swim together in unholy wedlock.

According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges river of India – the goddess Ganga – came down to the earth from the skies. The descent was precipitated when Vishnu, the preserver of worlds, took three giant strides across the Underworld, the Earth, and the Heavens, and his last step tore a crack in the heavens. As the river rushed through the crack, Shiva, the god of destruction, stood waiting on the peaks of the Himalayas to catch it in his matted locks. From his hair, it began its journey across the Indian subcontinent.

Whatever one makes of this myth, the Ganges does, in fact, carry extraordinary powers of both creation and destruction in its long descent from the Himalayas. At its source, it springs as melted ice from an immense glacial cave lined with icicles that do look like long strands of hair. From an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, it falls south and east through the Himalayan foothills, across the plains of northern India, and down to the storm-lashed Indo-Bangladesh delta, where it empties out into the Indian Ocean.

Another version of the myth tells us that Ganga descended to earth to purify the souls of the 60,000 sons of an ancient ruler, King Sagara, who had been burnt to ashes by an enraged ascetic. Today, the river symbolizes purification to millions of Hindus the world over, who believe that drinking or bathing in its waters will lead to moksha, or salvation. It has been esteemed by other religions and cultures, as well: the ancient Greeks, the first century Jewish scholar Josephus, and the medieval Christians all believed the Ganges to be Phison, the first river of Eden. And the 16th century Moghul ruler Akbar revered Ganges water as the water of immortality, refusing to drink from any other source.

Curiously, some evidence suggests that there may be a scientific as well as religious basis for the beliefs that this river can bring purification. Rivers continually purge themselves. Fresh infusions from rain or groundwater dilute their streams. The flow of water flushes solid materials downstream rather than letting them settle to the bottom. (Damming a river reduces its flow, and hence obstructs its flushing capacity, but free-flowing rivers keep washing out the garbage put into them.) The cleansing process is further aided by aquatic microorganisms that break down waste materials. These microbe-collaborators require dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water to do their job, and a high level of DO is normally a sign of a healthy river.

The more organic waste there is in the water, the more oxygen is needed by the microorganisms that break it down. The measure of this need is biological oxygen demand, or BOD. The organic wastes that drive up a river’s BOD include sewage, dead aquatic life, agricultural wastes, and plant-based industries like food-processing, alcohol distilling, and paper production.

According to studies reported by environmental engineer D.S. Bhargava of the University of Roorkee, the Ganges decomposes organic waste 15 to 25 times faster than other rivers. Bhargava conducted his studies in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. He monitored water at various locations along the river at different seasons over a five year period. Bhargava’s findings tally closely with those of the government’s Central Board for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution in New Delhi. This finding has never been fully explained.

Both sets of findings indicate that the Ganges has an extraordinarily high rate of reaeration, the process by which it absorbs atmospheric oxygen. When organic waste is dropped into it, as much as 60 per cent of the BOD is processed within an hour. The water quality samples also suggest that the Ganges retains DO much longer than does water from other rivers. If this is true, it could explain why bottled water from the Ganges reportedly does not putrefy even after many years of storage. Many Hindus keep water from the Ganges in glass bottles as a sacred relic, or for use in religious ceremonies.

The most life-giving qualities of the Ganges, however, are not unique, but universal: they are characteristic of rivers everywhere on the planet. Great rivers have always been the fountainheads of civilization. The Nile, the Huang He, the Indus, the Tigris, and the Euphrates were all centers of ancient societies. All were ascribed mythical qualities by the peoples they supported. These rivers, like hundreds of others around the world, brought life where they flowed, feeding agriculture, fisheries, trade, and culture, and taking away what civilizations discarded. The Ganges is venerated in India as a mother, Ganga Ma, for her capacities to create, preserve, and destroy life – reflecting the same powers as those of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

If Ganga originally came to bring salvation to Sagara’s 60,000 sons, as the legend has it, the poor goddess has now ended up with a burden ten thousand times greater than she bargained for. India’s fertility rate has declined since the days of that prolific procreator, but its population has nonetheless grown vastly. The river supports a staggering 400 million people along its 2,510 kilometer (1,560 mile) course. If the delta it shares with the mouth of the Brahmaputra River is included, the number of people it supports rises to half a billion, or nearly one-tenth of all humanity, making it the most populous river basin in the world. To put that in perspective, note that the Amazon basin, where the incursions of human activity have galvanized the concern of environmentalists, is still one of the most thinly populated parts of the world. The Ganges, by contrast, is one of the most densely populated, at about a thousand people per square mile. Its total population is projected to rise to 750 million by the year 2020, and to almost a billion ten years later.

The Ganges plains were settled by invading Aryan tribes around 1200 BC. In the 3,200 years since then, the landscape of the region has been completely transformed. The fertile alluvial soils that first attracted those settlers have supported a hundred generations of agriculturalists. More recently, industrial and mining activity has burgeoned in the region. Today, over 29 cities, 70 towns, and thousands of villages extend along the Ganges’ banks. Nearly all of their sewage – over 1.3 billion liters per day – goes directly into the river, along with thousands of animal carcasses, mainly cattle. Another 260 million liters of industrial waste are added to this by hundreds of factories along the river’s banks. A map of South Asia reveals an intricate web of tributaries that flow into and branch out of the Ganges. Through this web, four of the world’s most densely populated nations China, Nepal, Bangladesh, and India – empty their waters and wastes into the Ganges each day, adding to the load that comes directly from the region’s residents.

Municipal sewage constitutes 80 per cent by volume of the total waste dumped into the Ganges, and industries contribute about 15 percent. While the industrial wastes are smaller in volume, they can have far more insidious impacts than the sewage. Both, however, enter the river largely untreated; only a handful of towns process their waste at all. To the raw sewage and factory effluents are added the runoff from more than 6 million tons of chemical fertilizers and some 9,000 tons of pesticides. And finally, the Ganges becomes the last resting place for thousands of dead Hindus, whose cremated ashes or half-burnt corpses are put into the river for spiritual rebirth.

The result is deeply ironic: this ancient symbol of purity and cleansing has become, over much of its length, a great open sewer. The transformation began centuries ago, when the basin’s rich cropland and abundant wildlife made it a perfect place for human settlement. For a long time, the river seemed impervious to damage; its enormous volume of water diluted or decomposed waste very rapidly, and the annual monsoons regularly flushed it out. When the 15th-century poet Kabir wrote of the Ganges, “Hell flows along that river, with rotten men and beasts,” few would have believed that his impious lament would one day prove to be prophetic. But with 20th century pressures of burgeoning population and industrial growth, the Ganges is teetering under the burden placed on its cleansing capacities.


The Ganges begins its long trek to the sea as a stream of pure, glacial water flowing from a cave at Gaumukh, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in the Himalayas. Here it is known as the Bhagirathi, the smaller of two headstreams that come together to form the Ganges. The other is the Alaknanda, which originates near the border between India and Tibet, and meets up with the Bhagirathi 214 kilometers from its source. Gaumukh has been described as a desolate place; no real roads lead to it, and besides the occasional pilgrim, the only human visitors are hardy shepherds who graze their herds on mountain-sides below the cave, at an altitude of about 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).

Twenty-three kilometers from Gaumukh, the river reaches Gangotri, the first town on its path. Thousands of visitors come to Gangotri each year, arriving by road from every part of the world. Some of them are religious pilgrims, but many are trekkers on their way to the mountains. The Himalayas are still growing – rising at a rate of one to nine centimeters a year – and the upward movement causes incessant erosion, pouring an unusually heavy load of soil into the streams. It also makes the region seismically vulnerable. For this reason, local communities and activists have long protested the construction of the Tehri Dam (projected to be the world’s fifth highest) now taking place on the Ganges, in the Garhwal Himalayas. If the dam is completed, say critics, the weight of the water backed up behind it would put heavy pressure on the unstable geological structure below, forcing water into fissures and increasing the risk of triggering seismic activity that could break the dam and cause a catastrophic flooding of the entire Ganges valley and New Delhi region.

In southern Nepal and the Garhwal hills of India, developers clearing forests and building roads to meet the needs of tourists add to the already heavy natural erosion. By the time the Ganges reaches its mouth, it will have picked up 340 million tons of sediment each year. This comes to around 27 tons per hectare per year, as compared to 13 tons per hectare for the Amazon and 8 for the Nile. In English measure, that is about 20 pickup-truck loads of soil per acre every year.

This enormous load of silt continuously alters the river’s course over time – sometimes creating new land where there was once only water, and sometimes disintegrating existing land. The largest deposits are laid down toward the end of the river’s course, mainly in the eastern state of West Bengal, where the Sundarbans mangroves, for example, were created from land the river brought from the mountains. In some places, the sites of whole communities – such as the ancient cities of Gaur and Satgaon – have disappeared as the river has shifted its banks farther and farther to the west, shearing off pieces of the western shore as it moves downstream.

This process of continuous remolding is facilitated by the same dramatic phenomenon that gives the river much of its water: the monsoons. Each summer, the parched lands of the subcontinent are deluged by rains that bring a vivid metamorphosis to the land – a rebirth so sudden that it seems magical. In his poem, “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot portrays Ganga as the fertility goddess, anticipating the life-giving rains:

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves Waited for rain, while the black clouds Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

Watered by the monsoons, this silt-enriched land produces a significant portion of the rice, wheat, millet, sugar, and barley needed to feed the world’s second most populous nation. The rain feds the land, dilutes the river’s muddy stream, flushes out excess sediment and suspended matter, and revitalizes the river where its flow was sluggish. The Ganges can swell a thousand-fold during the monsoons. This force brings destruction further downstream in the Indo-Bangladesh delta, where increasing development has shorn the coast of its flood-buffering mangrove forests.

But little of this volatility is apparent in the relatively small river that flows down from the mountains toward the pilgrimage town of Rishikesh, the last point it traverses in the Himalayas before descending to the plains. Until this point, the Ganges is fairly unspoiled. It is at Rishikesh that the defilement begins, as raw sewage is dumped into the river along with hydrochloric acid, acetone, and other effluents from large pharmaceutical companies, and heavy metals and chlorinated solvents from electronics plants. The electronics industry, like any other that uses heavy machinery, consumes large amounts of hydraulic fluid and heat transfer fluids that contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are highly toxic compounds that concentrate in the higher links of the food-chain and are resistant to breakdown, and accumulate in the environment and body tissues.


The Ganges, with its apparent abilities to retain DO for long periods of time and to continuously reduce the BOD it carries, along with its huge annual flushing-out at the monsoon, has an unusually high capacity to rid its basin of waste. But the sheer enormity of the waste that is now dumped, poured, or washed into the Ganges once it enters the plains has overwhelmed even this high regenerative capacity. From Rishikesh on, the river is never able to regain its balance before the next onslaught of unsought offerings comes its way. Perhaps the worst assaults occur at the city of Kanpur, where the hides of horses, goats, and cattle are brought to factories for tanning. Some 80 tanneries operate here, consuming and discharging large quantities of water as skins go through an extensive chemical treatment from the time they are scoured with lime to when they are treated with chromium salts. The chromium lends a greenish hue to the drinking water the city draws from the river. Organic wastes – hair, flesh, and other animal remains – are thrown into the river, giving it a fetid stench. As they sink into the water, they mingle with the effluents of some 70 other industrial plants mainly sugar factories that disgorge a thick molasses-like substance, and textile companies that throw in various bleaches, dyes, and acids. Kanpur also contributes to the river about 400 million liters of sewage each day.

These great plains of the north were originally covered with dense, deciduous monsoon forest, inhabited by large mammals like the Asian elephant, !ion, rhinoceros, and Bengal tiger. Over the past three millennia, the plains have been vastly altered stripped of their trees and converted to agricultural and urban development, interspersed with occasional patches of open grassland. What plant and animal life remains in the region is threatened by continuing habitat destruction, and only 14 percent of the region’s original forest cover remains. One result is that the original riverbank ecology has largely disappeared. Root systems that once slowed runoff are gone.

Runoff that carries soil back into the river also carries farm chemicals. Organochlorine pesticides, such as aldrin, benzene hexachloride, and DDT (banned in the United States for its dangers to human and environmental health) are used extensively in the basin. These chemical compounds have toxic and carcinogenic effects on people and wildlife, and bio-magnify up the food chain. Like PCBs, organochlorines are highly resistant to breakdown, and accumulate both in the environment and in body fat.

Farms in these plains consume 35 percent of the fertilizer used in India, and the large quantities that wash off into the Ganges promote the growth of algal blooms and phytoplankon – green slimy masses that suck up large amounts of dissolved oxygen. In addition to impinging on the river’s capacity to decompose waste, this chokes off the oxygen supply to fish. Another dose of nitrates and phosphorus comes straight from the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative, a group of fertilizer factories just before the city of Allahabad. Thus laden – with mud, raw sewage, heavy metals, fertilizers, and pesticides – the river heads east toward its junction with another great river, the Yamuna.

Unfortunately, what might have been a fresh infusion of water here is not to be. The Yamuna, it turns out, has a sorry saga of its own. Flowing parallel to the Ganges just a little to the west, the Yamuna passes through New Delhi, picking up another massive quantity of sewage and other pollutants. At Allahabad, the now voluminous Ganges receives an additional load of 150 million liters of sewage each day.

Through these middle stages of the journey, it becomes apparent that the river’s native flora and fauna have suffered sorely. Freshwater animals like the gharial crocodile, the smooth Indian otter, the Asian small-clawed otter and various species of turtles are in decline. The freshwater Ganges dolphin – a blind, putty-colored mammal with a long, narrow snout – has an estimated population of just 4,000 to 5,000 animals worldwide, but most of that population now lives in exile in more hospitable rivers like the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh, and the Karnali in Nepal. In the Ganges itself, only a few hundred dolphins remain.

About 150 kilometers east of Allahabad, the Ganges reaches Varanasi, the place most associated with the river by its devotees. Varanasi is one of India’s oldest cities, and is considered to be its holiest. Its sewer system was built by the British in 1917, designed to serve one-tenth the population of the city today. This antiquated system does little more than pipe raw sewage into the river. Varanasi is also where large quantities of crematory ash, along with thousands of dead bodies, are immersed in the river by the devout.

At the same time, multitudes of pilgrims come to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges and drink its water, convinced of its purifying qualities – and undissuaded by the fact that coliform bacteria levels here far exceed the limits considered safe. The World Health Organization standards for drinking water stipulate coliform levels of no more than 10 per 100 milliliters of water. In Varanasi, coliform counts are as high as 100,000 per 100 ml. Elsewhere in the river, they range from 4,500 upstream to 120,000 downstream. Not surprisingly, water-related ailments like amoebic dysentery, gastro-enteritis, tape-worm infestations, typhoid, cholera, and viral hepatitis are extremely common in the Gangetic region. One person in the region dies of diarrhea every minute, and eight of every 10 people in Calcutta suffer from amoebic dysentery each year.

Varanasi is the last major city the river passes in Uttar Pradesh before moving on to the state of Bihar. Though eight Indian states discharge their wastes into the river, Uttar Pradesh contributes half of the river’s total pollution. Its final inputs downstream from Varanasi are the by-products of a diesel works, coal yards, and a number of distilleries and sugar factories. The last two are among the worst degraders of dissolved oxygen, as they discharge huge quantities of organic wastes; they also consume large supplies of water.

The river moves on to Bihar’s capital, Patna, a major producer of agricultural chemicals, where the water undergoes still further alteration. In the last 10 years, concentrations of phosphorus here have increased 15-fold, nitrogen 2-fold, sulfate 3.5-fold and silicate 2.5 fold. Patna produces about 270 million liters of municipal sewage each day, although this city is an exception in that it provides basic treatment to most of its sewage before releasing it into the river.

Further downstream, the large oil refinery at Barauni is notorious for piping huge amounts of oily sludge into the river. Ten years ago at this location, a two kilometer stretch of the river caught fire and burned for 16 hours. Fossil fuel burning produces polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), known carcinogens which have low water solubility. Instead of flushing out, therefore, the PAHs lodge in sediments – which the Ganges carries in abundance – and settle to the bottom, where they accumulate in aquatic life.

A short distance downstream from Barauni, at the point where the Bata shoe factory dumps its waste, water quality has deteriorated so badly that fish put in the water here in the early 1980s survived only 48 hours, according to a report by the Center for Science and the Environment in New Delhi. A little further on, at the McDowell distillery’s mixing zone, fish could survive only five hours. The untreated effluents of both industries, but of the distilleries in particular, are ravenous consumers of dissolved oxygen-cutting off the supply of oxygen to fish.


When the Ganges enters West Bengal, it branches into the Hooghly, which turns south toward Calcutta. The main channel – now named the Padma – continues on east into Bangladesh, where it is joined by the Brahamaputra en route to the Indian Ocean. Between the two branches, as it nears the end of its journey, the Ganges unburdens itself of much of the sediment it has carried with it for 1,400 miles. The Hooghly has gradually silted up over the centuries, and in some parts it has been reduced to thin veins of water amidst masses of sandbars and islands. This has threatened to impair the historical role the Ganges has played as a waterway on which the Bengal region’s trade has depended since the third century B.C. In the days of the British East India Company, crates of jute, timber, cotton, and tea were transported down the Ganges-Brahmaputra in steamboats to be sent to European markets.

About 150 large industrial plants are lined up on the banks of the Hooghly at Calcutta. Together, these plants contribute 30 percent of the total industrial effluent reaching the mouths of the Ganges. Of this, half comes from pulp and paper industries, which discharge a dark brown, oxygen-craving slurry of bark and wood fiber, mercury and other heavy metals which accumulate in fish tissues, and chemical toxins like bleaches and dyes, which produce dioxin and other persistent compounds. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a standard for suspended solids at 100 particles per liter of water, but the count in the Hooghly is over 6,000. Much of this consists of oily effluents from the port, where ships empty their bilge.

The main branch of the Ganges, the Padma, passes through the Farraka Barrage, a gigantic barrier designed to divert the Ganges waters into the Indian Hooghly branch, and away from the Padma. Completed by the Indian government in the early 1970s, it was intended to help flush out the increasing silt deposits in the Hooghly, to improve navigation, and to provide Calcutta with irrigation and drinking water. With the Padma thus depleted, Bangladesh has suffered from water losses in the dry seasons, and the Farraka issue has led to political tension between the two neighbors.

The Padma wends slowly through the Meghna estuary into the Bay of Bengal. The southern part of the delta, between the estuary and the Hooghly, consists mostly of fertile swamps and mangroves, including the Sundarbans National Wildlife Reserve. The Sundarbans tidal forest stretches for about 275 kilometers along the Bay of Bengal coast, and is swept by monsoon floods each year. Home to marsh crocodiles and the endangered Bengal Tiger, it is being poisoned by the pollution washing over it. Moreover, the siltation of the Hooghly and the diversion of the Padma at Farraka have resulted in a diminished flow of freshwater, allowing salt to travel unnaturally far upriver from the Indian Ocean in the dry season. The salinity damages both irrigation and drinking water, and is destroying the deltaic mangroves, which require fresh or less salty brackish water. These mangroves perform important ecosystem functions, by filtering pollution and absorbing excess nutrients from the water, which would otherwise run off onto neighboring plains.

These highly-evolved ecosystems also protect the coast from the force of the monsoons, by acting as buffers that soak up rainwater rather than allowing it to flood onto the plains unimpeded. In the last 50 years, West Bengal and Bangladesh have continually extended their cities into the mangrove forests, replacing wetlands with enormous landfills. This has left the region defenseless against the monsoon floods that cause immense destruction to life and property along the exposed coast.

Over the final miles to the ocean, the river is now divided into its several usually sluggish but periodically rampaging branches. Fish populations have been decimated. The Farraka Barrage has prevented the spawning of migratory fish, and siltation compounds their problems, making the river bed too shallow for them to lay their eggs. The annual catch of the hilsa, a species of Indian salmon, has decreased to as little as 30 percent of past levels below the barrage, and to just 2 percent upstream; in the last 20 years. But even those few fish that remain are now of dubious value, as they contain significant levels of heavy metals such as zinc and lead. If Shiva is the god of destruction, the legend that the Ganges passed through his hair now seems to have an ironic significance that its devotees did not anticipate.


Despite the long history of the river’s desecration, what has happened to date may pale beside what awaits this region if current practices continue. The population of the basin is projected to reach almost a billion people in the next generation – more than the population of the entire world at the beginning of the 19th century. This would mean 2.5 billion liters of sewage, or double today’s quantity, discharged into the river each day by the year 2020. Even more ominous are the forecasts for industrial pollution. According to a report in the Economic Times, a Bombay-based daily, industrial discharge into the Ganges is growing at the rate of 8 percent per year. At this rate, by 2020, nearly 2 billion liters of industrial effluents, as well, would enter the river every day – and close to 4 billion by the year 2030.

In any life process, whether that of an individual organism or a large ecosystem, gradually increasing stress does not result simply in gradually increasing impairment; at some point the whole process collapses – as is now happening in the Ganges. If this continues much longer, the Ganges will become incapable of serving its traditional waste-removal function, or of providing usable water for industries or homes. Already, 40 million workdays and millions of rupees in health services are lost each year due to diseases the river carries. With a collapse of basic freshwater services, those losses could explode. Moreover, among the hundreds of rivers and other fresh water bodies of India and South Asia, the abuse of the Ganges is not an isolated case. Nearly 70 percent of India’s available water is polluted. Waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera are responsible for 80 percent of all health problems and one-third of all deaths in India and the rest of the developing world. Only 7 percent of India’s 3,000 cities have any kind of sewage treatment facilities.

The link between the river’s health and that of the region it sustains has been given short shrift by policymakers. In 1985, the Indian government launched an Action Plan to clean the river, but it failed abjectly – due to pervasive corruption, mismanagement, and technological bungling – and was duly abandoned. Under the plan, a number of waste treatment plants were built, but virtually none of them remain functioning today. A fundamental reason for the failure was that most of those who have a stake in the river’s health were never included in the planning. But as conditions have worsened, the prospect of having their life-support system incapacitated may spur concerned industrialists, farmers, public health officials, and ecologists to succeed where the bureaucrats failed. The spiritual role of the river, too, could provide a powerful force for change. Dr. V. B. Mishra, a Hindu priest and professor of hydraulic engineering who leads the Clean Ganga Campaign in Varanasi, tells adherents that the river’s sacredness is reason enough to preserve it. Legends of the river’s sanctity derive from the same life-supporting properties that now teeter on the brink of collapse.

To observers in other parts of the world, the case of the Ganges may seem uniquely horrific; it may be hard to grasp how people could knowingly put human corpses or raw sewage into the same water they bathe in or drink. Yet, what has happened here is fundamentally no different from the continued abuse of ecosystems all over the world. Whether it is the contamination of groundwater by nuclear waste in Russia, the bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals in fish, or the killing of thousands of lakes by acid rain in Scandinavia, the long-range risks are no less alarming.

To the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia or the Ganges valley, there was possibly no greater crime than the desecration of a river. Despite all we know about the consequences of our polluting actions, we repudiate this respectful relationship with the resources on which we depend. In an era when science has given policymakers a far stronger grasp of what ancient myths could only suggest, it is a relationship that neither India nor the world can continue to ignore.

Payal Sampat is a graduate student in environmental policy at Tufts University, and a former research intern at the Worldwatch Institute.

Genre: General Information About Ganga & the Issues Articles
Subjects: General Information About Ganga and the Issues