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Saving a river: Pollution in India’s holy Ganges makes it toxic

NEW DELHI: The Ganges river, holy to most Indians, flows from the western Himalayas down to the Bay of Bengal through crowded cities, industrial hubs and some of the most populated areas in the world.

The river begins as pristine, clear waters in the icy heights of the tallest mountain range in the world. But pollution, untreated sewage and use by hundreds of millions of people transform parts of it into toxic sludge by the time it reaches the sea, about 2,525 kilometres downstream.

Personified by Hindus as the goddess Ganga, the river is the site of thousands of cremations and ash scatterings every day. The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a nearly $3 billion five-year plan to clean up the river by 2020, but Reuters found last year that only a tenth of the funds had been used in the first two years of the project.

A Reuters team that investigated the state of the holy river has compiled data and photographs to portray its condition.

Devotees take a holy dip at Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers, during “Kumbh Mela”, or the Pitcher Festival, in Prayagraj, previously known as Allahabad, India. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The government maintains it is on track to clean up the river.

But problems still remain. The BJP’s efforts have been hampered by failure to put plans into effect, meaning much of the money has gone unspent. Reuters found last year that only a tenth of the funds had been used in the first two years of the project, with officials struggling to find land for new treatment plants.

Untreated sewage from a residential area flows into the Ganges river in Mirzapur, India. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The latest government data shows that in the vast majority of places along the river where water quality is monitored, the levels of human waste in the Ganges mean it is not even safe to bathe in.

Human waste

Levels of fecal coliform indicate the amount of sewage in the water. The latest annual figures available show that in 2016, water from 41 of 45 sampling stations that collected coliform data contained in excess of 500 fecal coliform per 100 millilitres, the acceptable limit set by India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The average level measured at Howrah-Shibpur, West Bengal, has reached more than 300 times the Indian government’s official limit.

Untreated sewage flows from an open drain into the Ganges river in Kanpur, India. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Biochemical Oxygen

A measure called biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) is used to gauge “organic pollution”, which is caused by toxic compounds like metals, pesticides and insecticides. A low BOD in water indicates reasonable freedom from these pollutants.

India’s CPCB designates that water suitable for outdoor bathing should have a biochemical oxygen demand of 3mg/l or less. Among 56 sampling stations reporting data, 21 have excessive levels of BOD.

Sewage
In many places, India’s antiquated sewage system is unable to handle the huge amounts of waste produced along the river. A 2016 report by the Centre for Science and Environment found that 78% of sewage in India remains untreated.

Over three-quarters of the sewage generated in the towns and cities of India’s crowded northern plains flows untreated into the Ganges, according to a National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) presentation seen by Reuters in 2017, which has not been made public.

In addition, the NMCG presentation showed, about 4.8 billion litres of sewage from 118 towns and cities flows into the Ganges every day. The functioning capacity to treat sewage is only one billion litres per day.

According to official data, the Modi administration has cleared the construction of plants along with the rehabilitation of existing plants with a combined capacity to clean an additional two billion litres per day. That leaves a shortfall of around 1.8 billion litres per day.

The government maintains its efforts to clean up the river are on course. Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari said in December that the Ganges will be 70-80 percent clean within three months and 100 percent clean by March 2020. He did not give details on how the government had arrived at the figures, and did not respond to requests for further comment.

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