07/14/2011, 00.00

A billion dollars to clean up a filthy Ganges

The river worshipped by Hindus and vital to India is now an open sewer, full of faecal bacteria, unfit for bathing or farming. Now the World Bank will fund a restoration project, but experts express doubts about its success.
New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – India is set to receive a US$ 1 billion loan from the World Bank to fund ‘Mission Clean Ganga’, a project that aims at halting the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents into the Ganga (Ganges) River by 2020. Although sacred to Hindus and vital to the country’s population and economy, the river is one of the most polluted streams in the world, with 12 billion litres of industrial and urban effluents released every day into its waters and those of its tributaries.

The 2,500-kilometre-long Ganges is a key resource for India, supplying drinking water to a quarter of its 1.2 billion people who live in cities and villages along its banks. It begins in the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas in India's Uttarakhand state. It leaves the mountains at Rishikesh and hits the plains at Haridwar, then flows east through the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, where it is known as the Padma River, it is joined by the Brahmaputra; the two then go on to form the world's largest delta before emptying their waters into the Bay of Bengal.

The river is sacred for Hindus. Bathing in it is seen as essential to wash away one’s sins and bring about one’s regeneration. Each year, thousands of Hindus are cremated on its banks, their ashes immersed in its waters.

However, the river also takes in urban and industrial waste. In some places, it is a basin for faecal bacteria; in others, it is an open sewer, dangerous to human health, unfit for human or farming use.

Upstream of Varanasi, a temple town on the riverbanks, the faecal coliform count is 60,000 per 100 ml; downstream the figure rises to 1.5 million. A faecal coliform count exceeding 50 per 100 ml and 500 per 100 ml is considered unsafe for drinking and bathing respectively.

Many factories are located along the river, including tanneries In Kanpur, which discharge chemical and heavy metals like chromium into the river.

The river is also polluted upstream. Nearly 89 million litres of sewage is spewed daily into the river from 12 small towns in the Himalayas. At Haridwar, the faecal coliform count exceeds 5,500.

Faecal coliform bacteria can lead to typhoid, dysentery, cholera, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis. Contents of industrial effluents are carcinogenic and are known to cause kidney and liver problems.

For centuries, Hindus have immersed themselves in the Ganges, believing in its purifying qualities. Indeed, scientific studies have found that its waters have unique anti-bacterial properties, a kind of self-purifying quality that gives the water oxygen levels 25 times higher than any other river in the world.

However, large-scale dam building in the upper reaches of the river is undermining its capacity to rejuvenate itself. When forced to pass through tunnels, where there is no oxygen and sunlight, the river loses its capacity for self-purification.

In February 2009, the Indian government established the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). Headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the agency brings together several stakeholders, including federal ministries and local states, in order to find ways to reduce pollution and save the river. So far however, it has had little success.

Now the World Bank wants to finance a clean up to the tune of a billion dollars. New Delhi will provide another 500 million. Still many remain sceptical, believing that more money is needed.

In 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the US$ 226 million Ganga Action Plan (GAP) to little avail since pollution has gotten worse.

For noted environmentalist G D Agarwal, "It is not possible to clean Ganga without fixing accountability.”

Shripad Dharmadhikary, coordinator of the Manthan Adhyanan Kendra, a centre that researches and monitors water and energy issues, noted that most of the pollution comes from cities and that most problems are due to “the lack of accountability in regulatory and administrative agencies and the absence of political will in the government and administration”.
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