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Ganges

Between you and I…

My source lies in the north of India, more precisely in the Himalayas, at the heart of the Gangotri glacier. After a course of almost 2,700 km and crossing five states, I flow into the rough waters of the Gulf of Bengal, joined on the way by another legendary river: the Brahmaputra. Oh! I forgot to tell you, Ganges is the name the Hindus have given me and which originates from the goddess Ganga, daughter of the god of the Himalayan mountains!

With the Brahmaputra, the Meghna and countless secondary rivers, I form the Bengal delta, considered the largest in the world (about 93,000 km2). My basin is one of the most fertile and densest, since its 2 million km² accommodate a population of 500 million and is the source of more than 40% of India’s GNP.

One of the specific characteristics of my management is the country’s increasing demand for water and energy, which must be seen in the light of my spiritual importance since my sacred waters have given rise to age-old religious rituals. At the heart of Hindu beliefs, I am perceived as a living divinity.

The vital statistics of the Ganges

  • Source: the Gangotri glacier, in the Himalayas
  • Mouth: the Gulf of Bengal,
  • Average discharge: 200 m3/s to 6,000 m3/s during the monsoon
  • Total length:  2,700 km
  • Watershed: 860,000 km²
  • Countries crossed: China, India, Nepal, Bangladesh
  • Main tributaries: Gomati, Gandak, Son, Jamma, Yamuna, Gaghara, Kosi

A little history

According to legend, King Bagheeratha prayed to the goddess Ganga to bring prosperity to his land. The goddess satisfied his wish, but fearing that the water would submerge the earth, she placed them in the hair of the god, Shiva. It’s from his shoulders that part of the water flows to become the Ganges.

 

 

Along my banks stand the main capital of Hinduism, Varanasi, and the other religious sites to which devout Hindu pilgrims come (Haridwar, Allahabad, Varanasi).

A place of bodily and spiritual purification, I am linked to numerous religious rites. The sites of different cults are scattered along my banks (ghats) and pilgrims can reach my waters directly from the cities to cleanse their souls. I am believed to have the power to heal and the ashes from funeral cremations are scattered onto me so I can guide the souls of the departed directly to paradise.

 

 

The Ganges: a very polluted river

My sacred dimension, uncontrolled economic development and the presence of densely populated cities lead to enormous ecological pressure. Pollution threatens my biodiversity and the sustainability of my environment. More than three billion litres of wastewater are discharged into me every day! And that is in addition to the solid waste. In places, neither flora nor fauna can survive. That’s the case of the Yamuna, my largest tributary.

The impacts on the health of the population are catastrophic: in India, the main cause of infant mortality is waterborne disease, and many infections such as cholera, typhoid and hepatitis A are very common in the Ganges basin.

My many uses

 

Irrigation is the principal use

My waters have always been used for farming (sugar cane, cotton, oleaginous crops). Thanks to the green revolution instigated by the Prime Minister Nehru in 1948, with the construction of many diversion dams, India is now world leader for milk and tea production, and second for rice and wheat. “Everything can wait except agriculture”, he said.

Agriculture provides a quarter of the country’s GNP and employs 60% of the active population. The country is progressively equipping itself with efficient irrigation infrastructures. This progress has aggravated the disparities between small farmers, obliged to modernise their infrastructures or leave the countryside, and larger farms, which contribute to the pollution of my waters through the chemical fertilisers they use.

Hydroelectricity: infrastructures that are needed but which have major societal and environmental impacts

In 2014, the national register of large dams listed 4,845 such structures in India (most of them built following its independence in 1947) and 347 under construction.

India has started a huge programme to renovate its hydroelectricity infrastructures, especially in the north of the country which suffers from frequent electricity shortages. The Indian government has promised to connect all households from now to the end of 2018, but this target seems very difficult to reach for a country with 300 million people without any access to electricity.

So far, huge programmes to develop solar, nuclear and hydro- power plants have not satisfied demand. Also, large dams are often built to the detriment of the environment and local populations, obliged to move away.

Navigation, a decline in use

Before the 19th century, I was a highly developed waterway, that is until roads and irrigation made my navigation difficult. However, Bangladesh and West Bengal still make great use of me to transport goods.

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million people live in my basin

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of the India's GNP is provided by the agriculture

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times more water will be required by the industry in 2030

What river for tomorrow?

Caution, danger for the river!

I am one of the ten most threatened rivers in the world. The demographic explosion, economic growth, the modernisation of India and climate change all risk worsening my situation.

If all these phenomena continue in the same direction, then the governance for fairly sharing my resources and controlling my pollution will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

The installation of better wastewater filtration systems goes hand in hand with the combat against poverty. Shanty towns without any access to drainage systems have sprung up along my banks. As for industrial pollution, it must be regulated by regional and national organisations ready to invest in wastewater treatment plants and long-term pollution clean-up programmes.

The creation of the NGRBA* in 2013 and awareness of the current ecological crisis by the authorities give me hope. After a long period of chaotic modernisation, the voice of environmental awareness must make itself as audible as that of economic development.

*NGRBA: The National Ganga River Basin Authority is part of the Ministry of Water Resources. It is responsible for funding, planning and implementing the measures intended to protect and clean-up the river.

Climatic hazards and pressure on the resource

According to a report published by the organisation 2030 Water Resources Group in 2009, the demand for water from cities, households and farmers in India should double from now to 2030, while that of industry will multiply fourfold. But in the absence of change in water management, India can only satisfy half its needs.

The irregularity of the monsoons and the country’s strong economic and demographic growth is leading to uncontrolled withdrawals of surface water while pollution makes much of this water improper for consumption. Water management is hampered by overlapping responsibilities between different levels of national, regional and municipal authority.

Hydroelectricity: major geopolitical challenges

Conflicts are rife between India and its neighbours over sharing water, and will only increase with climate change. The Farakka dam, which has already given rise to a dispute with Bangladesh, should be redeveloped more fairly if climatic conditions worsen.

The future of the Sundarbans region

Straddling the border between India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans region occupies part of my delta and is the home of a wealth of biodiversity: mangrove forests, 260 species of birds, the last Bengal tigers and many other species in danger of extinction.

This region, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and a RAMSAR site (wetlands of international importance) since 1992, is faced with numerous threats: demographic pressure, drying and salinization of land, and a rising sea level linked to climate change. In the Gulf of Bengal, it has been estimated at more than 3 mm versus an average of 2 mm in other oceans.

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