From the Gangotri Glacier to the Gangetic dolphin, it all began with water. Jake Norton and David Morton set out for India with a mission to follow the Ganges from its source in the Indian Garhwal to its outlet at the world’s largest delta at the Bay of Bengal. Their mission flowed from a desire to better understand the relationship between a dramatically growing population and the crisis of securing clean, drinkable water for all. As David Morton recaps in his latest blog post on India, evaluating the health of the Ganges is a complex endeavor. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by David Morton
In India, if one were to follow the Ganges as we’ve done, there’s a natural irony that’s observed. How can a river that is so revered and sacred also be so polluted, contaminated, and dirty? Or is it? It surely seemed obvious to us. In our eyes, the river is suffering. There are plastic flotillas of detritus in every river eddy, garbage covering what should be riverbeds, and human sewage from communities emptying into the mighty flow. In nearly every village, there is a location where all of the local garbage is thrown onto a bank, presumably to be carried downriver by the next monsoon.
Part of our mission was to discover what the beliefs were surrounding this apparent irony. Why would there be such seeming disrespect of such a precious natural resource? What do children learn about their Maa Ganga, or Mother Ganges, growing up? The mission brought perhaps more questions than answers. It also led us to reconsider our own assumptions.
Another part of our mission was to collect the actual data and science regarding the health of the river. To do that, we tested the entire length of the river, starting at the head of the Gangotri Glacier that feeds the start of the Ganges and concluding at Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal. We used advanced hydrology testing and digitally logged results, while also collecting water samples. Not surprisingly, our collection points were diverse. On one extreme, there was the pristine glacier water collected at the river’s headwaters. At the other extreme was a location in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, where even with bare feet I could not feel the riverbed through the broken glass, plastic garbage, and human waste. All of the data and water samples have been sent off for analysis by hydrology labs. At some point, we’ll have that information and understand just how contaminated or healthy the Ganges is.
Whatever those results, we found that the people we encountered had their own understandings of the river’s health or lack thereof. We also learned these impressions are changing, and in turn changing behavior. One of our first conversations with someone whose work puts them in immediate relationship with the river was with Dr. Sandeep Behera. He is the foremost researcher of the Gangetic dolphin, the freshwater dolphin that still inhabits the Ganges today. He directed us away from being so appalled by the human waste in the river and the household garbage. For the Gangetic dolphin’s habitat to survive, it’s the industrial pollution and contamination that need to be stopped. He claims the Ganges can easily handle the human waste and limited household garbage (though clearly he hoped the habits of discarding garbage in the river would change).
This led us to the tanneries of Kanpur, an industry which has probably had the single largest impact on the river, due to heavy pollutants such as chromium used in the treatment process of leather. Though there has been significant change over the years–in part from a strong push by the government–it’s clear that much of the industry is likely not compliant in efforts to treat the discharge of this industry. Furthermore, as a local scholar told us, a big problem is that during the colonial period, the British designed the entire city’s drainage to flow to the Ganges. These are systemic and complicated problems that clearly have economic, political, and cultural issues intertwined. While the Indian government seems to be working proactively, it’s hard to see that much change will come quickly regarding the industrial waste issue.
As we began to understand the big impact of industry more clearly, we still came back to this idea of why people throw garbage into the river, or use its banks as the public toilet. Often we were told that because the Ganges was sacred, it could not be desecrated and polluted. There was the sense it somehow cleansed itself. But often our question about how something so sacred could be left to be so unclean was met with blank stares. It was as if the question didn’t take. Or it didn’t make sense. It was as if there was no irony there.
I understood it was my own assumptions. There is no expectation that sacred is clean, or should be. I imagine this also is part of what informs Dr. Behera’s comments. Though despite this, we spoke to many people, mostly highly educated, who do not bathe in the river anymore because of the pollution. It is a sad state. We were told the river was always the social center of every town. People would bathe in the mornings and catch up with each other. Exchange stories. It was their common place of shared experience.
This hit home for me. Even if our results come back that the Ganges is relatively healthy, this is the reason to save the Ganga from pollution. As it weaves through the country, its banks provide the physical glue to hold the community ties and traditions together.
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