For millennia, the Ganges River, holy to Hindus, has provided livelihoods, food, and water for Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Last month, one of India’s leading environmental activists died after a 111-day hunger strike, failing to evoke changes to save India’s most revered river (known as Ganga). After years of unrelenting abuse, Ganga is now one of the world’s worst polluted rivers. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed in 2014 to clean Ganga by 2019, but despite increased funding and much lip service, the river is more polluted than before. Mr. Modi needs a new strategy.
Pressure on Ganga has been building for decades. With a tripling of human population since 1950 and rapid urbanization, 50 cities along Ganga daily release 6 billion liters of untreated sewage into the river, by far the largest source of pollution. Untreated industrial effluents compound the problem, together with run-off of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Unfettered disposal of human and animal corpses into Ganga makes it unfit even for ritual bathing. Barrages and hydroelectric projects on the main stem of Ganga and its tributaries divert 60% of their waters, leaving little mainstream flow, which further concentrates pollutants in the river.