The holiest river in the world, is one of the dirtiest

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The Ganges River is considered sacred, and its waters for the people of India, and beyond, have purifying powers. According to their beliefs, the Ganges is believed to be a personification of the goddess of that name. Tradition attributes to it the power to purify the soul and body. By entering the water, a person washes himself not only of physical dirt, but also cleanses himself spiritually, rejecting evil powers. However, despite its sacred status, the river is one of the most polluted in the world. But to understand the essence of the problem, we need to know its religious and cultural significance.

Location of the Ganges River

The source of the Ganges (also known as the Ganga) is in the Himalayas, in the state of Uttarakhand. Crossing the border of India, the river flows through Bangladesh and discharges into the Indian Ocean. Its length is approx. 2510 km[1], with a basin area of approx. 1125 thousand km2. Although the Ganges flows mainly through India, in Bangladesh, where it joins the Brahmaputra, it forms the world’s largest multi-armed delta with an area of 80,000. km².

The religious and cultural significance of the Ganges River

The Ganges River has played an important role in the lives of the people of India for centuries. Many cities, but also temples and tombs were built along its banks. According to Hindus, it is sacred and divine. They believe that bathing in it cleanses from sins and provides graces. People from all over the country are flocking to cities along the Ganges to make a pilgrimage and take a dip in the holy river. Most of them believe that at the moment of death, their soul is released and returns to the river, where it is cleansed of its sins.

Many Hindus believe that the Ganges River is so sacred that even touching its water can help you gain eternal happiness. Moreover, the bulk of religious rites and rituals take place on its banks, including the burning of the bodies of the dead.

Causes of pollution of the holy river

Hindu life revolves around the Ganges, centered on the ghats – the steps leading to the sacred river. Here they talk, rest or focus on prayers to the goddess Ganga in silence. But it is not uncommon for Indian residents to also use these waters for domestic purposes, such as washing clothes and cooking. There would be nothing surprising about this, if it were not for the fact that every day about a dozen people bathe in the sacred Ganges. 3 million people. In addition, shepherds wash their animals there.

The river is very polluted, especially along the banks. You can literally touch food scraps, any plastic or even animal feces. There is a distinctive smell of burning funeral pyres in the air. Ashes, partially burned or unburned bodies and animal carcasses also end up in the waters of the Ganges.

Industrial waste, chemicals and garbage are dumped directly into the river. The waters carry thousands of liters of toxic waste from factories. The Ganges network forms the second largest plastic pollution catchment in the world. More than 0.12 million tons of plastic are discharged into the ecosystem annually. More than a quarter of the world’s waste ends up in the Ganges. Millions of people living along the river have no access to sewage systems, and sewage is discharged directly into the water. It is estimated that there are 100 million coliform bacteria in 1.5 ml of water. High levels of other pathogenic bacteria and toxic substances have also been found in the Ganges.

Another factor contributing to the pollution of the Ganges River is agricultural crops. Many farms in India use dangerous pesticides, which then end up in the river along with rainwater. In addition, the frequent burning of grasses contributes to the emission of air pollutants, which then settle on the surface of the water.

Bathing in the Ganges can result, for example, in hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera or gastroenteritis.

A miracle, but for a short time

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the Indian government has decided to socially isolate, suspend industry and close access to many places popular with tourists. This gave nature an opportunity to regenerate. One example of such a revival took place on the river. At the height of the cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar, the waters of the Ganges became so pure that they were again suitable for ritual drinking. This was a remarkable success that the government had failed to achieve for decades, despite the implementation of many recovery plans.

Environmentalists warned, however, that the revival of the Ganges River is only a temporary effect of the pandemic and the closure of the country to tourists, not a permanent solution. They pointed out that with the reopening of the borders and the resumption of industrial activities, water pollution will increase again. They also believed that the authorities should analyze the data collected during the quarantine to develop better environmental policies.

Is anyone doing anything?

Initiatives to clean up the Ganges have arisen and continue to arise. Admittedly, they have no visible effect, but they are not pointless. By raising the issue of pollution regularly, public awareness of the seriousness of the problem is raised.

Improving the state of the river is a challenge that requires government action at many levels. These are primarily wastewater treatment, control of industrial emissions, infrastructure improvements (construction of wastewater treatment plants, pump stations and water filtration facilities), community education and increased control of tourism. Taking action at the international level would also be an important step. International cooperation can help in the search for technological and financial solutions. A long-term commitment to protecting the Ganges is essential to ensure its sustainable revival and a healthy environment for organisms living in and around it.

Given the religious nature of the peoples of India and Bangladesh, moving away from such active “use” of the river is hard to do, but not impossible. The condition of the Ganges can be improved, but it all depends on the authorities and local people.


[1] STREAM, P. (2014). CHAPTER FIFTEEN “JOURNEYING BACKWARDS”: IMAGES OF INDIA IN THE CANADIAN POETIC STREAM JUAN IGNACIO OLIVA. India in Canada: Canada in India, 171.

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