28 Feb 2019
Topics Sanitation
At the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers, a special concert was staged. A group of musicians and tribal and spiritual leaders from around the world gathered, and led by Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji (Pujya Swamiji), president and spiritual head of spiritual institution Parmarth Niketan Ashram, they and the participants made a pledge for peace and to protect the world’s bodies of water.

The group were just a few of the 120 million devotees expected to pass through the holy site between 5 January and 4 March 2019. As part of the Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith and the world’s largest gathering of humanity, pilgrims bathe in the sacred water to cleanse themselves of their sins to attain "moksha," or freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

“We are facing a water crisis and if there is no water, there will be no peace,” said Pujya Swamiji, “India must pledge to set the example in water conservation and preservation from the world’s largest water festival — the Kumbh Mela.”

It is a sentiment the holy man has expressed before, including to journalist Victor Mallet. In his book, River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India's Future, Mallet argues that the Ganges (known as the Ganga in India) is the most important river in the world, for the sheer number of people it supports and for its cultural and historical significance.

“The Ganges provides us extraordinary fertility — agricultural fertility, which essentially created the wealth of India's many empires,” said Mallet in an interview with Global-Is-Asian.

In his book, he goes on to catalog the many ways that source of wealth has been squandered.

Heavy metals, faecal coliform bacteria and antibiotic resistant superbugs are but a few of the man-made hazards plaguing the river. Not to mention flowers and other religious offerings and the ashes of cremated remains.

It hasn’t always been that way. Dr. Cecilia Tortajada, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says: “Prior to industrialisation and the accompanying global green revolution in the 1960s, which saw the development of high-yield variety crops using new technologies, India's water availability was plentiful. Households, industries and farmers freely extracted groundwater and dumped untreated waste into waterways without a second thought.”

Crisis management

And yet here we are. According to NITI Aayog, an Indian government think tank, the country is suffering the “worst water crisis in its history.” Six hundred million Indians are at risk of not having enough water for their needs. By 2030, the country’s demand for water is projected to be twice the supply.

Mismanagement of the Ganges is but part of the problem. Over the years, there have been many plans and pleas for improvement. Plenty have called for improvements. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was conceived in 1979 and launched in 1985 with the goal of abating pollution and improving water quality.

While the intentions were good, a government analysis done in 2011 cited a long list of problems; delays in implementation, confusion over funding, technological issues. Not to mention, the overlapping roles of various institutions, lack of transparency, and low levels of citizens’ participation. In the end they determined the weaknesses “defeated the very purpose of the GAP.”

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi made the Ganges a campaign issue and after being elected in 2014, pledged US$3 billion to clean it up by 2020. But by 2017 only US$205 million had been spent, and while improvements have been made, 6 billion litres of untreated wastewater (sewage, industrial, domestic) still reaches the river every day.

Finding hope

The long list of problems and slow, inadequate response are enough to cause a feeling of hopelessness among the Indians, a feeling not lost on Mallet. “There is a tendency, you know —I feel it in myself — to sort of throw up your hands and say ‘oh my God, there's just nothing we can do, the world is doomed.’”

But he is quick to point out that there is still hope. Regarding the Ganges, even though some of the tributaries are horribly polluted, it is still a living river. “This is a river that is rich in wildlife. You know, you've got freshwater dolphins that you can find, 2,000 kilometers up the river... it is not dead and there are still ways to save it by changing our behaviour.”

He points out the examples of other great rivers that have “risen” from the dead. He remembers as a child in London, his mother warned him that if he fell into the Thames, they would have to take him to hospital because the water was so disgusting. Today, he marvels at the cormorants fishing in the river.

He also mentions Singapore’s effort to clean the Singapore river under PM Lee Kuan Yew. “That's a small river but it still took a long time and a lot of money.”

He adds: “The important message that I try to get across is that the situation is serious, but it's not irreparable and we have done this before.” And regarding the Ganges, he says, “certainly the will is there on the part of the people of India to do something about it, and therefore I think eventually, something will happen.”
Topics Sanitation