Looking for a Place to Start

July 26, 2016

The Ganges River, India’s longest, flows for more than 1,500 miles, supporting cities and agricultural areas in northern India. It is sacred to many Hindus, and people make pilgrimages to visit the river and bathe in or drink its water. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Many of the smaller villages through which it runs lack sanitation systems; the river receives raw sewage, industrial effluent, and garbage—more than a billion gallons a day, all told.

As this article describes, the Indian government has spent as much as $3 billion—estimates of the actual amount vary—over the last few decades to try to clean up the Ganges. The latest attempt, launched in 2014 by the government of the newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is called the Namami Gange project. Modi is said to have based the effort on the cleanup of other famously polluted rivers—the Chicago River, the Thames, the Rhine. However, as the article notes, the Rhine is only half as long as the Ganges, and its restoration took nearly 30 years and cost $45 billion. The Namami Gange project has a budget of just $3 billion over five years.

Some of the past failures to clean up the river have been due to corruption—money collected from polluting industries like tanneries, for example, to construct sewage treatment plants that were never actually built. Efforts are underway to increase accountability from local governments and contractors, and plans are also in place for each tannery to install sensors to monitor discharge and ensure pollutants are within prescribed limits.

Back in the 1960s, we in the US had our own river to clean up, one that became symbolic of what was wrong with the nation’s water quality and environmental situation. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that it caught fire, and that—along with a few other much-publicized events—brought about a greater environmental awareness and helped usher in the Clean Water Act itself. It’s often cited as a great success story; Carol Browner, then the EPA administrator, mentioned it in her editorial for the first issue of Stormwater magazine.

Other countries, too, have had their symbolic environmental causes. Germany’s Black Forest has been so devastated by years of acid rain from power plant and industrial emissions that the country aerially drops limestone—a strong alkaline—over parts of it to try to neutralize the soil. Europe’s Danube River, which incidentally begins in the Black Forest, has been polluted by various industries, suffered eutrophication from agricultural runoff, been segmented by dams, and been overtaken with invasive species; a multinational effort is underway to try to solve some of the problems.

In the article on the Ganges cleanup, a water resources secretary within the relatively new Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation notes that the project goals are immense, will take decades, and perhaps can’t be fully achieved. “I am putting myself under great pressure as far as targets are concerned,” says the secretary, Shashi Shekhar. “But if you do not see a high, you do not reach midway.”

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.