Thursday, February 5, 2009
Considered one of India’s holiest rivers, the Ganges is now facing one of the most unholy of problems. The assault is three-pronged: chemical pollution, overload of raw sewage, and the possibility (read probability) that its Himalayan source, the Gangotri glacier, will dry up.
The first thing that a traveller to India learns is not to drink the tap water. And with good reason: millions of tons of untreated sewage are dumped daily into India’s rivers – and some of them, such as the holy Yamuna and Ganges rivers – are slowly choking to death, jeopardizing the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Soon, the sight of children jumping into the Ganges for a swim may be a thing of the past.
"We talk a lot about industrial pollution of our rivers, but sewage pollution is a big problem," said Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment. "What is happening to the Yamuna is reflective of what is happening in almost every river in India. The Yamuna is dead; we just haven't officially cremated it yet."
Some of these rivers are the only source of water for drinking and domestic use for many poor Indian citizens. Tourists can always rely on packaged water for the duration with relatively no impact on them; but, the impact of industrial and human waste is worsening the water crisis in a country that depends on its rivers for water for both agricultural use and human consumption.
A study done by the Central Pollution Control Board showed that around 70 percent of the pollution in the Yamuna River is human excrement. In large metropolises such as New Delhi, 3.6 billion tons of sewage alone is dumped daily. This amount is from just one major city in India. It horrifies me to imagine how much raw sewage enters our water system daily worldwide.
Only half of the amount of sewage that enters the Yamuna River is effectively treated and the rest flows down the Yamuna, resulting in widespread waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea from drinking and bathing in the affected water.
Untreated sewage means anything that gets flushed down a toilet is untreated. Let’s look at (not literally) what gets flushed that could harm us:
1. Prescription pills: what leaves the body normally and unused pills that are flushed so family members won’t accidentally take them.
2. Non-prescription medications: when drug dealers flush their drugs during a raid it gets into our water system.
3. Condom contents: I think I’ve said enough.
4. Disease contagions: contagions which can cause others to become infected can be sometimes contained in feces and/or urine of the infected person.
5. Infectious bacteria: untreated sewage tends to ferment and stagnate becoming very infectious especially if there is an open wound involved.
6. Other bodily fluids: blood, vomit, etc.
The problem lies mostly with poorly utilized waste water treatment plants combined with an outdated system of drainage. There are over 300 plants; but, most are poorly located and treated waste is often combined with untreated sewage and deposited back into rivers. Half of the drains in India are considered inadequate.
Narain said that in order to meet the pressures of rapid industrialization and urbanization, India’s sewage management and treatment systems need to be overhauled and the rivers cleaned up.
"We should first look at effectively treating our waste water," said Narain. "And then using it for drinking or as irrigation rather than just throwing it back into the rivers."
Now, climate experts are warning of a new danger. The rising sea levels are causing salt water to flow into the Ganges, harming riverine ecosystems and transforming farmlands into unproductive soil. Once salt enters the soil it is impossible to use as agricultural land again unless the soil can be desalinated.
"This phenomenon is called extension of salt wedge," said Pranabes Sanyal, representative of the National Coastal Zone Management Authority (NCZMA) for eastern India.
"It will salinate the groundwater of Kolkata and turn agricultural lands barren in adjoining rural belts."
The sea is rising around 3.14 mm annually in some parts of the Bay of Bengal, compared to the global average of 2 mm. India already has more than its share of natural disasters, famine and disease; but, the rising seawater level threatens even more severe consequences.
Already scientists at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University have found mangroves growing along the riverbanks of Kolkata. As plants that typically grow in brackish, saline coastal areas, their appearance in this area is worrying especially since seawater fish have been seen in the freshwater river.
"We fear what happened 6,500 years ago might recur and we have already spotted more saline water fish in the river," Sanyal said, referring to the fact that the Bay of Bengal’s waters once extended up to the northern fringe of Kolkata, a city of 12 million people.
A video on the drying up of the Gangotri river.