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Mission: Clean river
The revival of the Ganges

Rishikesh on the banks of river Ganges
Rishikesh on the banks of river Ganges | © Erdmuthe Hacken

‘Namami’ – ‘I bow before you’.  The Sanskrit word is the namesake of the Namami Gange programme devised by the government in 2014 to help restore the Ganges to health. Progress has been patchy.

By Holger Schäfer

40 per cent of India’s population lives in the plains drained by the Ganges and its tributaries. The life-giving river covers a distance of 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Its water is used for bathing, cooking and washing.
 
And yet, unfiltered domestic and industrial wastewater, trash and faecal material also end up in the river. The pollutants in the water reached alarming levels a long time ago. The many action plans that have been launched since the 1980s have brought no improvement.

Graphic overview of the Ganga © downtoearth

To finally get a grip on the problem, the Indian Government created the Namami Gange Programme under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. The programme was launched in 2014 at the start of the present government’s five-year term. The programme aims to ‘revive’ the river that is so very important. The equivalent of 2.5 billion euros was sanctioned for the first five years.

Sluggish progress

But progress has been slow. By mid-2017 there was clarity regarding just 18 percent of the budget and what exactly it should be used for – for refurbishing existing treatment plants and constructing new ones, for instance.   
 
The first sewage pipes and treatment plants have been built but nowhere near as many as planned: by late 2018, 63 projects on wastewater infrastructure had been completed, 236 had been planned. The new or renovated treatment plants can treat 328 million litres of wastewater – 2000 million litres was the target. 100 kilometres of sewage pipes have been built – over 2000 kilometres had been planned.

Adding to the pollution: industry and religious ceremonies

Industrial wastewater causes problems for the river, an example being the textile industry in Kanpur, which uses toxic dyes and tanning chemicals to manufacture leather. According to the ministry concerned, tanneries that refused to install filtration plants have been shut down. Yet enormous volumes of pollutants such as toxic chromium continue to enter the river.
 
Religious ceremonies add to the pollution. Every year during festivals dedicated to Durga or Ganesha, thousands of statues of these gods end up in the river. The plaster and paints used to make the figures contaminate the water. Also contentious from the environmental perspective, is the tradition of cremating corpses on the river bank and consigning the remains to the river.

Germany is also helping

Since 2016, the Government of India has also been working with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit on the Ganges project. Germany is investing three million euros and the EU is injecting a further 2.4 million. Five GIZ employees are helping to improve and standardise the process of measuring water pollution. They are also advising the towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh on wastewater management. Both towns are places of pilgrimage located in the upper reaches of the Ganges where the river leaves the Himalayas and where the pollution begins.
 
One of GIZ’s primary tasks is to improve the efficiency of the municipal treatment plants. Apparently it is often a simple matter of cleaning the screens regularly, something that is just not done. ‘Clear instructions regarding work and duties at the different stages of the treatment process would already be a help,’ says Martina Burkard who is in charge of the project on the German side.  
 
Burkard is hopeful that the Ganges will improve gradually: ‘The challenge can be addressed but it requires tremendous energy and many small steps. One can’t hide behind the claim that the problem is too big to be resolved.’

New toilets, less trash

The Ganges programme is supported by another environmental initiative launched by the government: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Clean India Mission. Under this initiative, the state has built or supported the construction of over 50 million toilets, of which around three million have been built along the Ganges. 99 per cent of the villages along the river are officially open defecation free.
 
Nevertheless, concentrations of coliform bacteria in the river – 2,500 MPN/100 mL – ­ continue to exceed tolerance limits: readings fluctuate between 2,500 and 240,000 MPN/100 mL (almost 100 times higher) of Ganges water.
Waste in the river Waste in the river | Photo: Holger Schäfer © Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi The Mission’s second objective is to tackle the mounds of trash polluting the cities and water bodies. Posters show a demonstrative Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a broom in his hand.

Battle against trash and mounds of plastic waste

Starting in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, waste is gradually being segregated. In public places and at railway stations, one can now choose between green bins for organic waste and black bins for other waste.
 
New legislation could also benefit the Ganges. To contain the mass of plastic, India’s highest court for environmental issues – the National Green Tribunal – imposed a ban on plastic cups and plastic bags in the cities on the Ganges, making it punishable by law. Dumping garbage on the banks of the river also risks attracting a fine of several hundred euros. This should help reduce the roughly three million tons of plastic that end up in the Ganges each year. 

A guru for the rivers

One of the country’s best known gurus works to ensure that all these measures are accepted: Jaggi Vasudev, known as ‘Sadhguru’. Vasudev calls for the Ganges and all other Indian rivers to be cleaned and taken care of. ‘We must finally start treating our rivers as a national treasure,’ he says.
 
His Rally for Rivers campaign took him across the length and breadth of the country in 2017. Tens of thousands of people came to the meetings, also drawn by the presence of well-known bands and regional politicians who lent support.
 
The guru has also set up a hotline for people who want to help him in his campaign for rivers – 120 million people have called, an impressive number even by Indian standards.
 
But what have all the campaigns and measures achieved so far? The Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi compared water quality, including oxygen demand, measured by state agencies in 2016 and 2018. The readings give a good idea of pollution levels: the greater the contamination, the greater the oxygen demand. With an oxygen demand of 2mg per litre (mg/L) or higher, bathing is not advisable.  
During the period covered by the study, there was a decline in oxygen demand at some locations, for example, from 4.2 to 3.8 mg/L in Allahabad, and from 2.5 to 2.2 mg/L in Patna; at other places however, it had increased further, from 6.5 to 8.5 mg/L in Kanpur, and from 5.5 to 5.6 mg/L in Varanasi.  The Namami Gange Programme has therefore had variable success, in terms of water quality, as well.

Alternative ideas

Beyond the government programmes, scientists like Vikram Soni from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi have completely different ideas. Soni believes that ‘to obtain clean water, we should make better use of the floodplains, there is immense potential lying there.’ After all, in the case of the large rivers that originate in the Himalayas, the floodplains are up to 20 kilometres wide and 100 metres deep. He believes that pumps can be used to extract the water from the sandbanks.
 
‘Of course not more than what is refilled by nature each year.’ Soni has calculated that this method alone could help the cities located on the Ganges to meet the needs of up to three million inhabitants for – clean – water. Innovations like this could also contribute to the Ganges once again becoming the lifeline that it once was.

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