Causes of Ganges River Pollution: A Case Study

Since the beginning of our blog we have covered topics that are related to History and Geography of India. In our articles, we have covered Mountains in India as well as Rivers in India. We specially covered Ganges River in a separate article and now we would focus on Pollution in Ganges River in this article. This article came to my mind after watching a lot of documentaries that were related to Rivers of not only India but across the globe. The pollution in Ganges river is one of the most debated topic worldwide. Although Ganges River has self-healing power and successive Indian government has spent billions dollar to purify it but the situation has only worsened. It is considered as goddess in India therefore Indians think that Ganges river cannot die and therefore they dump millions of wastes every day without thinking about the consequences. In this article, we would be covering Pollution in Ganges River (on different states) and reason for Ganges River Pollution. We encourage all our readers to provide their input and observations related to this article so that we can spread awareness as much as we can.

Importance of Ganges River in India

Why Ganges River is Important to India. Image Source: World Bank Group

Ganges River is one of the longest river in India and it provides water to about 40% of India’s population. The Gangetic Plains formed by Ganges River is one of the most fertile land on the earth and almost 10% of world population lives here and earn their livelihood and generates nearly 40% of GDP of India. From source to mouth the total length of Ganges River is 2600km and the Ganges basin covers almost quarter area of Indian mainland. In the year 2016, I travelled to Badrinath Temple, did rafting at Rishikesh and visited the Ghats of Varanasi. All the three places have one thing in common i.e. these sites are located either on the banks of Ganges River or any of its tributary. Another thing I noticed was that the water was clean at Badrinath Temple while it was severely polluted at Varanasi. Throughout its length, the river flows through some of the biggest cities of India and these cities contribute heavily to the pollution of Ganges River. As per World Bank Sponsored Study (State of Environment Report), high pollution level in Ganges Water contributes 9-12% of total disease in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.). Also, Ganges River was ranked among the five most polluted rivers of the world in the year 2007.  Before jumping to our article it is necessary for us to understand what different parameters are used to test the quality of water in a river or stream. The four important parameter are:

  1. Dissolved Oxygen (DO): The dissolved oxygen (measured in mg/L) is the most important characteristic that determines the quality of water a river or stream has. A water body can be considered as healthy as long as its dissolved oxygen DO exceeds 5 mg/L. Below this most fishes do not survive and they need minimum of 8 mg/L D.O during their embryonic and larval stages.
  2. Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD): Except for bacteria, organic matter in water is generally not harmful but causes oxygen depletion in water. The bacteria present in water feed on this organic matter thereby depleting oxygen and generating CO2. Therefore, the more organic matter is present, the more bacteria feed on it, and the greater oxygen depletion is. So the amount of organic matter is directly related to oxygen depletion.
    Most polluted Stretch of Ganges River

    Kannauj to Varanasi is considered as the most polluted stretch of Ganges River in India. Image Source: World Bank Group

  3. Fecal Coliform (FC): Fecal coliforms are the group Coliform bacteria that generally originate in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and are considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. Fecal coliforms are considered as an accurate indicator of animal or human waste in water.
  4. Total Coliforms: Total Coliforms includes bacteria that are found in the soil, in water and in human or animal waste. The total coliform is relatively easy to measure in the lab and therefore has been selected as the primary indicator for the presence of disease causing organisms in water.

Now let’s take a look at some of the important factors that causing Ganges River Pollution.

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Ganges River Pollution Caused by Cities Located on the Banks: As mentioned earlier the Ganges River flows through some of the biggest and densely populated cities of India. These cities include Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad, Patna, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Farrukhabad, Kannauj and Kolkata. All these cities are directly or indirectly dependent on river for their daily needs and in return they dump their everyday waste into Ganges River without any treatment. A large proportion of solid and liquid wastes like domestic usage (bathing, laundry and public defecation), Sewage wastes, unburnt dead bodies are dumped into Ganges River. Another important thing to note here is that 80% of pollution to Ganges River is caused by the sewage. Let’s look at some of the figures

Sewage contribution to the Ganges River Pollution

Image Showing amount of Sewage generated from different states and their water treatment capacity. Image Source: Central Pollution Control Board

  • According to official records there are nearly 36 Class I cities (population more than 1 Lakh) and 14 class II cities on the banks of River Ganges. They generate 2800 MLD of waste water and have treating capacity of only 1208 MLD. (It is to be noted that the treated water is still polluted and not up to the standards).
  • Ganges River is polluted by Faecal Coliforms bacteria in its entire length whereas the level of BOD exceeds the criteria in the stretch that spans from Kannauj to Tarighat in Uttar Pradesh. Narora to Allahabad segment of River Ganges is the most polluted stretch, Kanpur is the nerve centre.
  • At several places (especially in Uttar Pradesh) water is pumped out from the river for irrigation. In addition to this degradation of river is visible due to encroachment of river bed, sand mining, active netting of fish and open defecation.
  • 6 million tons of fertilizers and 9,000 tonnes of pesticides is used in agriculture within the basin. Thousands of animal carcasses and human corpses are being released into the river every day. In many places, solid waste is dumped which includes flowers and materials used for religious purposes.
  • The value of DO and BOD meets the standard criteria only when river is in its origin phase. As soon as Ganges enters the plains the value of DO decreases and BOD increases.
  • The Value of TC and FC is very high throughout the stretch of river (even at Rudraprayag). At most of the stretches of Ganges River its water is not even suitable for bathing.
  • Water quality of river increases at it enters to Bihar (Ghaghara, Gandaki and Sone river joins Ganges) but it again starts degrading once it enters the city of Patna. Faecal contamination is very high and way beyond the standard criteria.
  • Also, as per the record of CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board), state of Uttar Pradesh is responsible for nearly 76% pollution in Ganges River. At Varanasi 30 polluted drains flows directly into Ganges River without any treatment of water.
    Drains from different states of India discharging wasterwater into Ganges River

    Image of four drains discharging waste water into Ganges River. 1: Drain In Uttrakhand 2: Drain in UP 3: Drain in Patna 4: Drain in West Bengal.

  • Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (IITR) analysed water samples from selected sites in Unnao. Twenty four samples (18 from drinking water sources and 6 from effluents) were collected and out of 18 drinking water samples, 13 samples were found to exceed the recommended TDS limit, 12 samples were found to exceed the limits in terms of total hardness, 13 samples were found to exceed the limit for fluoride, 6 samples were found to exceed the limit for sulphate, 4 samples were found to exceed the limit for chloride, 5 samples were found to exceed the limit for alkalinity, 2 samples were found to exceed the limit for manganese, 9 samples were found to exceed the limit for iron and 1 sample was found to exceed the limit for mercury.

Ganges River Pollution Caused by Industrial Waste Dumped into Ganges River: Many industrial cities are located on the banks of Ganges River like Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna and they dump toxic chemical waste into river. Major industries include Distillery, Pulp and Paper, Tannery, Sugar, fertilizers plant and slaughter houses. The chemicals dumped into river include Aresnic, sulphur, mercury. These industries are nearly 20 % responsible to water pollution in the river but they pose hazardous effects to water quality, its chemical property and riverine life. The blood and other waste from slaughter house is also dumped directly into the river.

List of Industries causing Ganges River Pollution

Graph Showing waste water generated by different industries situated in the course of Ganges River. Image Source: Central Pollution Control Board

  • In terms of industries polluting Ganges, tannery sector is main culprit whereas other dominating sectors include Pulp & paper sectors, Chemical and sugar sector.
  • According to documents submitted to the court by the Centre, the number of grossly polluting industries (GPIs) affecting the Ganga was 764 in 1985. In 2017, government officials were still listing the number of GPIs as 764.
  • Out of these 764 industries, 687 are in Uttar Pradesh. Another important thing to note is, the water consumed by these polluting industries is 1123 MLD whereas total waste water generated was 501 MLD i.e. 45% of total water consumed.
  • Most of the Tannery and Slaughter house operating in Uttar Pradesh lack basic water treatment capability and in absence of that the waste water is directly dumped into Ganges.
  • Many industries operating in Ganges belt (especially slaughter house & Tanneries) do not have a valid permit to operate. According to CPCB report submitted to NGT (National Green tribunal) only 1 Slaughter house has valid permit to operate in Uttar Pradesh (out of 126 although number can be more).
  • Central Ground Water Board carried out a test on Ground Water Contamination in Industrial zone around Ganges River in 2010. Samples were collected from different sites and it was found that these samples exceed the limit for fluoride and chromium. Also, High values of arsenic in ground water has been recorded.

Ganges River Pollution Caused by Polluted Tributaries Joining Ganges River: Not only the Ganges River is polluted but the rivers joining Ganges River during its course are also heavily polluted. These rivers further increase the level of pollution in Ganges River. These Rivers include Yamuna, Gomti, Ramganga and Kali. Out of all the tributaries joining River Ganges Ramganga and Kali river are the most polluted. Important things to note here are:

People Celebrating Phhath Puja in the dirty water of Yamuna River. The same river later Joins Ganges in Allahabad. Image Source: The Indian Express

People Celebrating Phhath Puja in the dirty water of Yamuna River. The same river later Joins Ganges in Allahabad. Image Source: The Indian Express

  • Of all the river system joining Ganges River, Ramganga River carries maximum industrial wastewater followed by main stream of Ganges River and then Kali River. Water Quality of Ramganga affects the water quality of Ganges River at Kannauj.
  • The cluster of polluting industries in Kashipur and Moradabad discharge their effluent in river Ramganga and that of Meerut and Modinagar in river Kali. Both these tributaries contribute pollution in river Ganga in the vicinity of Kannauj.
  • Flow of river Kali at Khatauli town was zero which shows that natural source of river Kali was abolished and flow was only observed during monsoon. Moradabad and Rampur drain are two major drains discharging industrial/domestic wastewater in river Ramganga.
  • The level of Dissolved Oxygen in River Yamuna is zero at Agra. The river is officially dead in Agra. Later on the same Yamuna River joins Ganges River in Allahabad. It does not dilute the concentration of effluents rather increases it.
  • Gomti River passes through Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh and millions of gallons of sewage is added into the river. Gomti River later joins Ganges in Varanasi and contributes further to its pollution.

Ganges River Pollution Caused by Travelling Boom in India: In last one decade, there has been a boom in travelling in India. There has been sharp increase in solo travelling as well as in group travelling and it is another important factor causing Ganges River Pollution. Rishikesh is biggest centre of water-rafting in India and thousands of tourists come here for rafting. The city has hundreds of hotels but hardly few have proper sewage disposal system in place. Many Hindu pilgrimage sites are located on the banks of Ganges River which draw large number of tourists and pilgrims. Even at Badrinath Temple I saw the waste water being directly dumped into Alaknanda River. Earlier pollution in Ganges used to start once the river enters plains but now the river comes polluted from Devprayag (Origin of Ganges or even before Devprayag). According to one of the local living at Gangotri temple “In 1977, when I used to go for mountaineering training, hardly two or three cars could be spotted in Gangotri. But now there are hundreds and thousands of cars and buses plying pilgrims and tourists to these places during the summer months,”. Few points related to this are:

Pollution in Ganges River and its causes.

Millions of People Bath in the water of Ganges River thereby increasing its BOD level.

  • The higher value of coliform bacteria and organic pollution is observed in Upper Ganga due to open defecation and discharge of waste water directly through small drains into the river. The value of TC and FC was very high indicating sewage is directly dumped into river.
  • With respect to cities contributing pollution in Uttrakhand, Haridwar and Rishikesh plays major role. In Uttrakhand 14 drains discharge 440 MLD of industrial and domestic wastewater. Rishikesh region contributes 184 MLD of wastewater from 08 drains with BOD load of 1265 kg/day alone. In Haridwar region, total wastewater flow is 60 MLD whereas 48.6 MLD of wastewater flows directly to river Ganges and remaining drains discharge to Upper Ganga Canal.
  • The criteria for dissolved oxygen (DO) is not met at Haridwar whereas Rishikesh fails to meet the criteria of BOD.
  • Faecal Coliform value is very high and does not meet the water quality criteria for bathing in river Alaknanada at Rudraprayag and at Devraprayag. Higher value of coliform bacteria and organic pollution is observed in Upper Ganga due to open defecation and discharge of waste water directly through small drains into the river.
  • Almost all the lodges, hotels and residential building divert their waste water into Ganges in Rishikesh, Haridwar and other cities situated upstream of Ganges River.

Ganges River Pollution Caused by Dams and Cannels on Ganges River: This reason may sound strange but Dams and cannel too causes Ganges River Pollution. Tehri Dam in Uttrakhand on Bhagirathi River holds the flow of Ganges River so does many more hydroelectric projects constructed throughout its course. Also, as soon as the river enters into plains large amount of water is extracted from it for various industrial purpose and only polluted drains join river. The main problem with Dams is that they hold the flow of River due to which all the sediments settle on river bed. It also reduces the water temperature as stagnated water loses heat very easily. This temperature change causes huge impact on the breeding capability of marine animals (you all can read the case study of Humpback chub found in Colorado River and effect of temperature on their breeding cycle). Dams also restrict flow of sediments which greatly reduces the fertility of soil. Few important points to note here are:

Dams and Ganges River Pollution

Image listing the important Hydroelectric Projects running in Ganges Basin. These Projects hinder the Natural Flow of Ganges River.

  • There are two types of projects on river Ganga 1: The Hydropower projects in the upper reaches and 2: Irrigation (canal system) projects in the downstream.
  • Before reaching to Haridwar, there are seven operational Hydroelectric projects on River Ganges in Uttrakhand. Another seven hydroelectric project are under construction and proposal for 22 more projects is submitted. In a nutshell these all projects are playing with the natural flow of river in upstream leaving no water downstream.
  • Once the river enters plains, the diversion of water of River Ganga takes place through various canals. The Upper, Middle, Eastern and Lower Ganges Canals extracts sustainable amount of water from river (10,500+ 10,260+ 9000 + 5800 cusecs) and leaves virtually little or no flow in the main river.
  • The Parallel Ganga Canal extracts further 4600 cusecs of water for Narora Atomic Power Plant. In the absence of adequate flow, even with 100% treatment cannot bring the river water quality to bathing level.
  • While rafting at Rishikesh, our guide told us that two weeks ago, the water level in River Ganges at Shivpuri was so low that they could cross the river by walking.
  • Large amount of water is pumped out via Upper, Middle, Eastern and Lower Ganga Cannel leaving river almost dry in summer season. During this time, the flow of river comprises of waste water generated from drains and sewers.

Ganges River Pollution Caused by Festivals and Religious Processions: Ganges River is considered as Goddess in India. People in India believes that the river has some magical power and if you bathe in river water on some auspicious day all of your sin would be washed away. Study conducted during Kumbh Mela of 2013 suggests that spiritual dip in holy Ganga at Kumbh is not clean. The level of the BOD increased drastically during the Kumbh Mela. Apart from Kumbh mela there are many auspicious day in Hindu Calendar and people from all over India bathe in the river on those days. Idols of God and Goddess are immersed in Ganges River once the festival is over. The Ghats of Varanasi are famous as Hindu Cremation sites and on an average thousands of dead bodies are burned here everyday. Once the cremation ceremony is over all the ashes are immersed into river. Few points to note regarding this are:

Ghats of Varanasi and Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat Situated on the Banks of River Ganges Varanasi. One can see the number of dead bodies burning on this ghat. Nearly 4000 dead bodies are burned here everyday and ash is immersed in River.

  • During 2013 Kumbh Mela, nearly 100 million people bathed in Ganges River in Allahabad. Not only this the river hosts 2 out of 4 major Kumbh Mela in India.
  • The Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest reason of pollution of Ganges River in India. At Sangam, Allahabad, the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) of Yamuna and Ganga is less than 6 mg/ltr.
  • The reason for the sudden rise of contaminants in the river was sudden increase in flow of human waste because of increased bathing during Kumbh. UP government employed around 10,000 sweepers to keep the city clean but off the record officials admitted that their drive to check sewage in Ganges has not worked as dirty sewage was still flowing into the river.
  • 10 drains were identified in Allahabad discharging 293 MLD of wastewater. Varanasi through seven drains discharge 558 MLD of wastewater.
  • Nearly 4000 dead bodies are cremated at Ghats of Varanasi every day and later ash is immersed into River. The ash from cremation is immersed into River Ganges in all those cities from where the Ganges River passes.
  • The water quality at Allahabad and Varanasi is not suitable for bathing, water is dark grey in color and regains muddy color only in monsoons.

Ganges River Pollution Caused by Global Warming: Although Global Warming is a problem with which whole world is fighting it has impacted the Ganges River a lot. The Gangotri glacier which is the source of Ganges River and one of the largest glacier in Himalayan Range is retreating at a very high speed. In last 2 centuries, the Glacier has reduced by 3 kilometers. In last 60 years, the recession was more than one kilometer at a rate of 19 meters per year. In last two decades, the rate of recession was recorded as 34 meters per years and going by this speed the glacier will be nowhere by 2034.  The decrease in the size is a direct indication that lesser water will be added into Ganges Rivers when the ice melts. Since river would not have enough water in upstream, the downstream flow would nearly be comprised of sewage water and industrial waste. Sufficient quantity of water is always required for maintaining the normal flow of the river as well as for diluting the pollutants. Lot of tourist activity around the Gangotri Glacier is also a reason for its faster melting. Greater movement of Humans have caused ecological disturbance in the region and due this the Uttrakhand Government placed a restriction on number of people trekking to Gangotri Glacier. Now only 150 people are allowed every month to trek to the glacier which is a welcome move.

Importance of Ganges in Hinduism

Image showing origin of Ganges River according to Hindu Mythology and why the river is considered as Goddess.

We have nearly completed all the important factors that contribute to the pollution of Ganges River. Indian Government had launched Ganga Action Plan I (1986) with the motive of cleaning the river and it turned out to be a failure. The Second phase of Ganga Action Plan was started in the year 1993 and in spite of spending millions of rupees the situation of pollution In Ganges River has worsened. In 2014, after assuming the office of Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi initiated the ambitious plan of “Namami Ganges” and more than 3000 crore was allocated for this project. According to RTI in year 2016, more than 2000 crore rupees has been already spent but the condition of river hasn’t improved till now. This statistics gives us an idea that like GAP I and GAP II, the Namami Ganga Programme is also going to be a failure. There is common saying “If Ganges thrives, India thrives & if Ganges dies, India dies” and after knowing the importance of Ganges River the above phrase seems logical. We, the people of India know the importance of Ganges River and we all are aware about the critical level of pollution in the river, still we all fail to come up with any permanent solution. I can give few more examples that will further prove how critical the condition of Ganges River in India is but it will only lengthen the article. I would urge all my readers to watch the two documentaries 1. Chasing Rivers, Part 2: The Ganges (By National Geographic) and 2. Our World -Killing the Ganges (By BBC). I would thank all my readers for reading such along article (nearly 4000 words) and would urge all of you to provide you feedback and suggestions to tackle the pollution in Ganges River.

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