"Ganga is the most sacred river in the country with a unique cultural and spiritual significance. Traversing over 2,500 km, the colossal Ganga River is celebrated and used by millions of people from its origin in the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas to the Sunderbans delta in Bangladesh. Several tributaries in the higher reaches have the potential to generate sufficient hydropower to boost India’s energy supplies and in the downstream, the river has the potential to become a vibrant waterway to carry goods and people across long distances. This is the only river basin in India which is resource rich with lots of surplus water still available.
But unfortunately, this massive river is currently reeling from decades of negligence and ill-treatment meted out to it by an ever growing population. On one hand, it is the epitome of holiness symbolizing purity but on the other hand, it is a large, polluted, stagnant body of water filled with dirt and plastic. It is at this point when one wonders as to how one of the world’s mightiest rivers ended up as a garbage dump!
Issues a effecting the river are myriad and seldom simple. They range from untreated sewage and industrial waste dumping to restricted flows and rampant underground water withdrawal. The combination of glacial retreat, decreasing ice mass early snowmelt and increased winter stream flow add on to the pressure and suggest that climate change is already affecting the Himalayan ice cover impacting the river in the long term.
The water quality challenges vary across the course of the river: (i) from Gangotri to Rishikesh, the river is enjoined by several small and fast flowing tributaries and is much less polluted due to human activities but is threatened by ill-planned dams for hydropower generation affecting highly sensitive and fragile ecosystem and bio-diversity, (ii) the middle stretch from Rishikesh to Kanpur, Allahabad, Patna and Farakka is heavily abstracted and the most polluted (pollution decrease as one traverses downstream) due to domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial effluents. It also causes heavy flooding in the eastern Uttar Pradesh and northern Bihar plains. (iii) the last stretch forms part of the Sunderbans- world’s largest active delta and has experienced considerable changes in the channel path, salinity ingress and tidal storms and is subjected to water sharing conflicts among the riparian countries.
Gangetic Pollution: Main Causes
Ganges basin is considered the world’s most populous river basin and is home to more than 600 million urban and rural Indian population, or about half of the country’s total population. The incidence of deep and multifaceted poverty is high in the basin and the water and sanitation infrastructure is either absent of unsatisfactory. The basin is largely agrarian with urban centers having several small scale, unregulated and polluting industries and a number of pilgrimage or religious centers. So the root cause of pollution is from unmanaged sewage, septage and solid waste generated by a large population, industrial effluents, agricultural chemicals and waste and remains of religious offerings which are exacerbated by reduced flows during lean months and the climatic variability.
- Sewage, Septage and Municipal Solid Waste:
The main stream of the Ganges passes through 36 Class I cities (with population over 100,000); 14 Class II cities (population between 50,000 and 100,000) and about 50 smaller towns with population above 20,000. According to Central Pollution Control Board of India (CPCB, 2013), these Class I and Class II cities generate more than 2.7 billion liters of sewage every day, although this figure may be underestimated. With the installed capacity of 1.2 billion litres per day (functional or actual, operational capacity is even much smaller), only a fraction of this wastewater is treated before it reaches the river . According to an inspection and estimation of the CPCB, only about 26 per cent of the wastewater generated along the Ganga is treated and the vast amount of wastewater is directly dumped into the river. The tributaries of the Ganga like Ramaganga, Gomati, Kali, Yanuna, Hindon and several others are even more polluted and aggravate the problem as they merge into the main river. CPCB has identified 138 large wastewater drains which disgorge a massive 6 billion litres of highly polluted water directly into the Ganga. Storage, leakage and disposal of solid wastes through septic tanks is another serous problem. The Ganges basin states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal have a very poor sanitation infrastructure. As per the latest Census (2011), about 45 to 53 per cent of the urban households use septic tanks and there are no plans and mechanisms for septic management and these are emptied into open fields, landfills and drains which eventually pollute the river flows. Open defection is practiced by more than 25 per cent of the population and is a serous and direct threat to human health and water pollution. The collection capacity and proper disposal of solid waste is utterly lacking in the Ganga basin states. Most villages, towns and cities dump the solid waste of organics, plastic, glass, dead animals and other disposables around the banks of the river which not only choke and pollute the stream, it is an eyesore and repelling aesthetics for the population.
- Unused or Abandoned Religious Offerings:
The Ganga is India’s most sacred river and surrounded by traditions and mythologies. Offerings of various kinds of materials are offered daily to the river by millions of devotees. On special occasions and festive seasons millions of pilgrims gather at its banks. Take bath and remove all the dirt of body and clothes into the river. Highly coloured clay idols of deities are immersed into the river. The river also finds the ultimate disposal place for unclaimed dead bodies and other half or fully burnt dead bodies which decay and pollute the freshwater.
- Industrial Wastewater:
The large urban centres are also the industrial hubs for the highly polluting large and small chemical, distillery, food and dairy, pulp and paper, sugar, textile and dyeing, and tannery industry. All these industries consume, pollute and discharge large amounts of wastewater into the river (Table I). The regulations for treatment of these wastewater are weak and often flouted by the unscrupulous industries. These effluents are generally toxic, poisonous and non-degradable and thus pose a major threat to the riverine aquatic life.
As is evident from the data, the textile, tannery and pulp and paper industries, the most prevalent in the basin, are also the most polluting industries. Several of these are in small scale and household sector and thus devoid of any self or imposed regulation.
- Pollution from Agricultural Fields:
Though pollution from agricultural fields is not as intense and severe as the municipal and industrial pollution, yet in certain stretches of intensive agriculture close to the river banks and in the basin can be hazardous especially the residues from insecticides and pesticides. Agrochemicals have the potential to damage the riverine ecosystem to the extent that the river loses its self-treatment capacity. The continued increase in the use of fertilizers and agro-chemicals and intensification and diversification of agriculture pose a potential threat to the deterioration of freshwater quality.
- Insufficient Environmental Flows:
A healthy river requires that after meeting all the requirements of the diverse stake holders, adequate quantities of high quality water must continue to flow in the river throughout the year. At no point of time and in no particular stretch of the river, the flow may become insufficient and discontinuous. Large scale abstractions of surface water directly through diversion canals and distributed groundwater pumpage throughout the basin seriously impact the river flow regime. The middle stretch of around 1,080 km from Haridwar to Varanasi is the most degraded due to significant irrigation diversions through extensive canal network and groundwater pumpage and high degree of pollution loads from different sources. Flow estimates after the canal diversions at Haridwar, Bijnor and Narora indicate that original Ganga River is almost completely lost, with little or no capacity to perform its ecosystem services and assimilate the large pollution loads.
Past Efforts to Clean the Ganga
The poor river health, besides the large negative environmental, impacts also constrains the livelihood options for many of those dependent on the river as more than 200 million people in the basin are among the India’s poorest. Faecal contamination caused by increasing amounts of untreated sewage and septage directly discharged into the streams is a major concern for the Ganges. Coliform levels are high all along the river and make the water generally unsuitable for traditional bathing, not to speak of drinking, barring a few upstream locations.
Present and Future Plans and Innovations
- Establishment of National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG):
The NMCG is established for the implementation of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). The NMCG is the planning, financing, monitoring and coordinating body at the Union Government and being supported by suitable State-level Program Management Groups (SPMGs) for the purpose of achieving the twin objectives of the NGRABA: effective abatement of pollution and conservation of the river Ganga by adopting a comprehensive river basin approach. For this purpose, the NAMCG is empowered to take all necessary actions that may be necessary or incidental for the achievement of the objectives.
- Reallocation of the Business and Rechristening the Role of the Ministry:
Most of the business pertaining to the cleaning of the Ganga has been moved from MoEF&CC to the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR). To reflect the new mood, name of the Ministry itself has been changed to Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR, RD&GR).
- Namami Gange:
The Government of India recently (2015) approved the “Namami Gange” program, which integrates the efforts to clean and protect the Ganga River in a comprehensive manner. For the next Plan period, an outlay of INR 200 billion has been allocated and has subsumed the GAP programs into its ambit. This program is much more comprehensive and includes the treatment of wastewater flowing through the open drains through bio-remediation, use of innovative technologies, additional STPs, installation of new industrial effluent treatment plants and retrofitting of all the existing plants to make these functional and operate at full capacity.
Global experience with large, but once equally or even more polluted than the Ganges today, rivers such as the Danube, the Thames, the Rhine, the Nile, and the Elbe show that strong river basin management organisations capable of generating basin-scale knowledge and scenarios, identifying hotspots of pollution and potential solutions incorporating urban and rural waste for closing the nutrient gaps in agriculture, prioritizing interventions and investments and advising on awareness and policy are central to river cleaning and rejuvenation. It is proposed that the new initiatives may be multi-pronged and address the problem holistically through (i) reduced pollution loads from unsewered urban areas and their safe use in agriculture, (ii) development of a viable environmental flow-water quality management system, (iii) support establishment of and innovative Ganga Demonstration centre, or a Ganga University, and (iv) improve governance, communication and implementation capacity of the major stakeholders.