A river gasps for life

The Ganga is ‘dying’, and fast. The most revered river of the country can no longer be classified as "threatened". If the WWF report ‘World’s top 10 rivers at risk’ is any indication, continuous water withdrawal, pollution and climate change have together created a situation of very high risk for our most famous river, reports Vibha Sharma

"What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt—it is sure to where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else," Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Hal Boule once said. This statement, however, no longer holds true as some of the world’s greatest rivers, including the Ganga, are no longer assured of reaching the sea unhindered, says the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Human greed, expanding population and climate change have together ensured that.

The Ganga at Prayag
the bathing ghats at Banaras
(Above) The Ganga at Prayag; (bottom) the bathing ghats at Banaras. How long will the river remain the lifeline of those who are sustained by it?

In the years to come the northern plains, heavily dependent on the Ganga, are likely to face severe water scarcity. Together with the onslaught of industrial and sewage pollutants, the river’s fate stands more or less sealed.

"Among the categories dead, dying and threatened, I would put the Ganga in the dying category," says WWF Programme Director Sejal Worah.

The other heavyweight to join in the list from the Indian subcontinent is the mighty Indus. The Indus, too, has been the victim of climate change, water extraction and infrastructure development. "In all, poor planning and inadequate protection of natural means have ensured that the world population can no longer assume that water is going to flow forever," WWF says, adding that the world’s water suppliers—rivers-on-every-continent are dying, threatening severe water shortage in the future.

The other rivers of the world are at the mercy of over-extraction, climate change, pollution, dams and over-fishing are the Yangtze, the Mekong-Lancang, the Salween-Nu, the Danube, the La Plata, the Rio Grande, the Nile and the Murray-Darling. The bottomline, therefore, is that rivers are no longer assured of reaching the sea unhindered.

As per the WWF, water extraction is the only one of the daunting challenges that a river faces as it makes its way to its terminus. "Dams and channelising destroy habitats, cuts rivers off from their floodplains and alter the natural ebb and flow on which a river’s plants and animals depend. Invasive species crowd rivers’ banks, drive out native fish and choke their courses. Pollution fouls their waters, sometimes turning life-giving rivers into threats to human health. And climate change threatens to alter all the rules that rivers have lived by for thousands of years".

While the imminent fresh water crisis is bigger than the 10 rivers listed, the summary mirrors the extent to which unabated development is jeopardising nature’s ability to meet growing demands.

The huge volume of waste generated by millions of people living in the cities on the banks of the Ganga is passed on into the river
The huge volume of waste generated by millions of people living in the cities on the banks of the Ganga is passed on into the river

What’s wrong?

The Ganga is facing a threat due to increased water withdrawal for agriculture, pollution, climate change and the 14 proposed large dams. In India, barrages control all the tributaries to the Ganga and divert about 60 per cent of the river to large-scale irrigation, the WWF report claims.

Over-extraction for agriculture in the river has caused a great reduction in surface water resources, increasing dependence on groundwater, loss of water-based livelihoods and the destruction of habitat for 109 fish species and other aquatic and amphibian fauna.

"Lowering water levels have indirectly led to deficiencies in organic content of the soil and reduced agricultural productivity. Over-extraction of ground water has affected the water quality. Inadequate recharging of groundwater impairs the natural cleansing of arsenic which becomes water soluble when exposed to air threatening the health of the people likely to use it. Climate change will excarberate the problems caused by water extraction. The Himalayan glaciers are estimated to supply 30 to 40 per cent of the water in the Ganga, which is particularly critical in dry seasons prior to monsoon," the WWF cautions.

Another major problem has been pollution caused by polluting industries due to which large amounts of chemicals like chromium find their way into its rapidly decreasing flow. And that’s not about all. The sheer volume of waste generated by millions of people living in the cities on its banks is passed on into the river in almost untreated form.

Ganga, the people’s river

The Ganga originates from the Gangotri glaciers, a vast expanse of ice, five miles by 15, at the foot of the Himalayas, (14,000 feet above sea level). It is the source of the Bhagirathi, which joins the Alakhnanda to form the Ganga at Devprayag. Incidentally, the sources of the Indus and the Brahmaputra are also close by but while one ultimately flows out into the sea through Pakistan, the other spends a major portion of its life in Tibet/China.

As far as the Ganga is concerned, from Devprayag to the Bay of Bengal and the Sunderbans delta, the river and its tributaries like the Yamuna, the Ghagar, the Gandak, the Son, the Gomti and the Chambal cover a vast expanse. It breathes life into some of the most important cities of the northern plains—Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna and Kolkota.

With a basin spread over an amazing 1,016, 124 square km, covering parts of India, Nepal, China and Bangladesh, the river supports a population of more than 200 million. The Ganga basin occupies 30 per cent of the land area in India and interestingly one in 12 people in the world live in its catchment area.

The WWF says that the Ganga basin supports a rich biodiversity with 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and five areas supporting birds found nowhere else in the world. It is home to the endangered Ganges river dolphin and the rare freshwater shark—Glyphis ganeticus. The unique Sunderbans delta supports more than 289 terrestrial, 219 aquatic, 315 bird, 1276 fish and 31 crustacean species. There are also 35 reptile and 42 mammals, including the world’s last population of tigers living in mangroves. Sunderbans, the delta of Ganga, or rather the Hoogly and the Padma, covers 42,000 square-km and is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Pilgrimage towns like Hardwar, Banaras and Allahabad hold special significance, and not just for devout Hindus. For millions, the Ganga is the centre of social and religious traditions. What makes the Ganga so special for India is that for the people in India it is associated with a way of life and is the symbol of India’s age-old civilisation and culture.

Ganga on film

Its close association and significance in the life of the people has made it the focus of many Hindi and Bhojpuri blockbusters. The river automatically brings to the mind names of Bollywood grossers like Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Ganga Tera Paani Amrit. Several Hindi film songs have been shot on its waters. The Canadian entry for 2007 Oscars—Mira Nair’s Water—focused on the plight of widows in the temple town of Banaras. Initially planned to be picturised in Banaras, the shooting locales were later shifted to Sri Lanka following protests.

Action plan

The Ganga Action Plan, initiated by the government to control pollution in the Ganga and its tributaries in different phases, has been slow.

The Ganga runs its course of over 2,500 km from Gangotri to Ganga Sagar through 29 class I cities, 23 class II cities and about 48 towns.

While GAP-I was still in progress, the Central Ganga Authority decided to take up GAP-II in February 1991, on the tributaries of Ganga like Yamuna, Damodar and Gomti, in 25 class I cities left out of the phase-I and in other polluting cities along the river. GAP-II was to be completed by December 2001.

Despite heavy investments towards cleaning, pollution levels in the river remain as dangerous. While lower water levels can be attributed to over-extraction, climate change and infrastructure development, environmentalists say that close to 90 per cent of the pollution in the river is caused by sewage, which continues to flow unabated into it. Pollution level in the Ganga is the biggest contributor in spreading water-borne diseases among those residing on its banks.

Officials, of course, shift the blame of delays on the lack of experience of state agencies, delay in land acquisition, litigation and court cases, contractual disputes and diversion of funds.

Source trouble

The situation is no less scary at the source of the Ganga—the Gangotri. The glacier receded at an alarming rate of 17.15 metres per year between 1971 and 2004, according to a study conducted by the Department of Science and Technology. One more study estimated that the glacier retreated 12.10 metres during 2004-05, another example of global warming and climate change.

Agencies conducting regular monitoring of several glaciers during the past 100 years in major basins of Himalayas from Shyok in the west to Changme Khangpu (Tista) in the East have revealed that a majority of the glaciers in the Himalayan region are passing through a phase of recession.

Climate change

Environmentalists say that climate change is closer than we think and will hit agrarian developing countries like India the hardest. While the north will face the water crisis with 50 per cent less water in the next 18 years, coastal areas like Mumbai can face the threat of innundation and 20 per cent increased risk of cyclonic storms. "On a scale of one to 10, I would put India’s capacity to meet with challenges ahead at 0.5 points. Everyone seems to be talking about climate change, but as an actual measure very little is being done," IPCC Chairman R.K. Pachauri says.

"Adaptation will be necessary to address impacts resulting from the warming which is already unavoidable due to past emissions. We need much more work on the monsoon given its importance to life and agriculture in this country. The country has to devise anticipatory measures, including protective infrastructure and encouraging natural methods," he adds.

Recession may cause an increase in the discharge of Himalayan rivers due to enhanced melting, initially leading to a higher incidence of flooding and landslides. It spells disaster for areas dependent on perennial rivers like the Ganga. As the volume of ice diminishes, there will be no water left to flow in the river.