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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: The River is Life

Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of National Geographic Society's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys & water-air-sediment sampling. Written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

We spent the first two nights on the river in the blur between sleeping and waking, waking and working, working and sleeping. The taste of adventure was fresh, and the river was calm and inviting—a body of coolness in a plateau of humidity and heat. It spread out for miles, stretching to the horizon in all directions, as if we were caught in the middle of the ocean. 

It was marvelous and scary, breath-taking and unnerving. We were at the river’s mercy. It determined our push, pull, sway, smoothness, our ability to sleep (or not sleep), whether we could dance on the top deck or nap on a mattress at the boat’s bow. 

I grew up near the ocean in a town with little rain. My entire life was on land with gravity the only certain force. And for most people in my community, the ocean was a beautiful sight, a stage for setting suns. 

But here in Bangladesh, it was different. The river was life. It was loved and hated. It gave and it took. It was an economic lifeline for fishermen, a quarry for brick-making and cement, a source of pride and food. It inspired songs and dances, art and poetry, identity and culture. 

But it also flooded homes, swallowed land, stripped away attempts at stability, especially during the monsoon season. It reigned supreme. It dictated life. Food, transportation, bathing, religion, waste disposal, it met all of those needs. 

People intimately understood their lives were directly connected, influenced, affected by the river in a way my home community, with our different, almost cosmetic relationship to the ocean, wouldn’t quite understand. 

Our journey was to understand the river and the reasons why and how plastic feeds into it. But more than that, there was an underlying desire to understand its flow, its fisheries, its connection to people–in essence, its spirit. 

And so here we were, at the basin of the river delta as it fed into the Bay of Bengal, the final point of congruence where the murky blue-gray water running underneath us came not just from the Ganga, but distributaries of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna and Meghna rivers. 

According to Dr. Bushra Nishat, Water Resources Specialist and one of our Bangladeshi team members, the combined force and flow of these rivers into a single channel results in the third largest water discharge and second largest sediment load in the world. 

What that looks like is speed—we could see the current from the surface of the water. What that looks like is power—if one of us fell into the river, we’d be swept away instantly. 

The men who operated the boat and the smaller vessels that ferried us to and from the shore were professionals—they understood the river’s flow, how to navigate its high and low tides, when to launch the boats and when to wait. It was an intimate relationship, a constant dance—they were the river’s translators, negotiators, and dependents. We gave them our full trust and they, the river’s. 

The banks were coated in clay, silt, and sand. Blue plastic tarps—remnants of fishing nets, sheets for drying chilies, landing platforms for brick formations—punctuated the earthen gray. The river was known to naturally change its course; like all things, it was constantly changing, constantly in motion. But human activity up the river also cast woes upon the people living along the water in Bhola. 

Human engineered water diversions, insertion of dams, and climate change all led to changes that the local people couldn’t predict and were forced to adapt to. Stories of struggle pervaded most of the conversations we had with local people, but even more pronounced was an acceptance that whatever happened, they would continue to provide for their families, love their children, build, make, and live their lives. 

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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