Pollution in  Southern and Eastern Asia

Ganges River Pollution

On the banks of the Ganges River in the Indian city of Varanasi, a man in his thirties is washing clothes by rhythmically hitting on them on a granite slab. The man's name is Vijay Kumar and his family has been working on the river bank washing clothes for generations.

"Every day I'm here," he said. In the evening I deliver clothes to the customers."

Vijay Kumar's spot on the river is right next to one of Varanasi's traditional cremation areas - a place where Hindus come to burn the bodies of their dead. The government promised us a new location some years ago, but nothing has changed."

River a lifeline

Kumar's family has washed clothes for generations

Vijay Kumar is just one of the more than 400 million people who depend on the Ganges River for their livelihoods. But with this river - and particularly here in Varanasi - there is another dimension: the Ganges River is not just an economic lifeline, but also a spiritual one.

Hindus worship the river is as a goddess, Maa Ganga - or Mother Ganga. But while the river Ganges - known in India as the Ganga - may be pure for religious believers, in secular terms it's in fact gravely polluted.
A Hindu ascetic or sadhu praying in the Ganges river in Varanasi, India (Photo: Janak Rogers)

Hindus believe the Ganges to be purifying

Multiple river threats

Varanasi's cremation grounds, however, are just a small fraction of the wider pollution problem facing the Ganges.

Leading water pollution expert B.D. Tripathi of Benares Hindu University described three major Ganges pollution problems: domestic waste, untreated industrial effluent including toxic and heavy metals, and cremation grounds (two in Varanasi alone).

The river runs for some 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles), with more than two dozen major urban centers located on its banks. With many factories and business dumping toxic chemicals into the river, human sewage compounds the situation.

An estimated 3 billion liters (800,000 gallons) of sewage is released into the Ganges each day, of which only a third - according official figures - is processed by treatment plants. Agricultural businesses are also draining the river basin and adding toxic pesticides and fertilizers into the river system.

Tripathi said that if pollution in the Ganges remains unchecked, the river faces a potentially terminal decline. "The entire structure of the river will be changed," he said.

Changing, and staying the same

As India grows economically, those who depend on the river are already bearing witness to the changing health of the river water.

Jaylal Sahani, a boatman now in his 50s, spends his days ferrying pilgrims and tourists in Varanasi. We have no choice but to work here," he said.
A colourful patchwork of clothes drying in the sun on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi, India (Photo: Janak Rogers)

Clothes-washers think the main pollution problem is with industry

While modern pollution is forcing many people to break their ties with the river, Hindu scholar Krishnakant Shukla argued that the Ganges's unique place in Hindu cosmology means the river will remain at the heart of Hindu life - however severe the pressures of modern life may become.

Myth lives on in Varanasi, Krishnakant said

1. How is the Ganges river being polluted?

2. Are people's religious beliefs more important than their healthy well being?

3. Hindus believe that the Ganges is what?

4.  What do the people of India believe the main cause of pollution is?

5. What is a solution to the pollution issues in India?


Choose one of the following

1. Write a one page summary describing the impact of pollution in the Ganges river that has on the people of India.

2. Make a brochure outlining the pollution problems in India and provide a possible solution.

3. Create a FAQs page about the pollution in India.

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