National Geographic Society Newsroom Science & Exploration

“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: The River Just Needs to Flow – On Pollution, Population, and the Fate of the Ganga

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 were in Varanasi, one of India’s most ancient cities, known for fire-wielding religious ceremonies, and historic stone ghats–long, wide, steep stairways that fold into the riverbank, melt with the dusk, and rise with the dawn. 

It was here, with the Ganga in the backdrop, that I met Dr. Syed Hussain, one of our expedition collaborators from the Wildlife Institute of India, and learned about the challenges facing the Ganga River system. 

“The main issue is population growth,” explained Dr. Hussain. He supervises the Biodiversity Conservation and Ganga Rejuvenation program, which aims to restore the Ganga’s biodiversity through public conservation education programs and science-based monitoring centers. 

“Water is extracted from the river for food, irrigation, for the general needs of people,” he continued, “but as such, the river has lost its ability to clean itself and maintain its ecological or environmental flow (e-flow).”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

He emphasized that the river just needs to flow. “Cleaning is a continuous process. Maintaining health is a continuous process,” he shared. Pollution comes from the river’s inability to maintain its “e-flow” due to human diversion for things like agriculture. 

According to Victor Mallet, Asia Bureau editor of the Financial Times and well-known Ganga researcher, “in the dry season, most of the dams take 90% of the water that flows down the river and divert it for agriculture.” The needs of the increasing population take more from the river, thereby preventing it from cleaning itself.

Determining optimal water use, then, is at the center of the debate between food security and environmental integrity. The river supports 40% of India’s population with water diverted for irrigation purposes of farms and fields. At the same time, it is home to critically endangered species such as dolphins, otters, crocodiles, and freshwater sea turtles, whose livelihoods are at risk with encroaching riverbank development, and industrial and human pollution.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

“Right now, the pollution status of the river is actually media hype because ugly stories sell,” he said. After completing six sea to source surveys of the river that covered all 2525 kilometers, he found that 50% of the biodiversity is still present and doing well.

“Definitely, the water quality is bad because of coliform bacteria,” he continued. “Traditionally, Indians go out and defecate in the river, but now with the government-run toilet scheme to decrease defecation, coliform bacteria in the river will decrease.” 

Untreated sewage is one of the main causes of pollution in the river. “India’s river system are also its sewers,” explain Professors Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey in their book, Waste of a Nation. Nearly 37 billion liters of untreated sewage flows into the river daily–that’s equivalent to “a Sydney Harbor’s worth of raw sewage (minus industrial pollutants) every two weeks.” 

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

With the Ganga flowing past 29 cities, each with a population of over 1 million people, “approximately 75% Ganga pollution comes from municipal sewage from the cities, towns, and villages along its banks.” Add in the fact that more than 30,000 bodies are cremated annually on ghats and 300 metric tons of ash are immersed in water, and you’ve got one polluted river. 

The key then, says Dr. Hussain, is maintenance of the water level, determining its optimal use, and controlling point-source pollution. “We have to work on the policy level to maintain ecological flow [and] maintain the river in acceptable limits,” he said. It’s a dual strategy–policy change on the top and behavioral change on the bottom.

Over the last thirty years, the government has invested in environmental programs–they launched the National Mission to Clean Ganga; Prime Minister Narenda Modi spearheaded “Swachh Bharat the Clean India campaign, promoting personal hygiene and installing over 80 million toilets in an effort to combat open defecation. And the Wildlife Institute of India’s Ganga Prahari program has trained and educated 500 local people in conservation biodiversity. 

“People know the value of Ganga,” Dr. Hussain said. But behavioral change takes time. In the words of Victor Mallet, “the Ganga is not a dead river. It has pollution problems, but it is not dead.” So there is still hope, and more work to be done.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.