Case Study River System Under Ganga Action Plan

Original paper

Sewage pollution of the River Ganga: an ongoing case study in Varanasi, India

Hamner, Steve; Pyke, Damon; Walker, Michelle; Pandey, Gopal; Mishra, Rajesh Kumar; Mishra, Veer Bhadra; Porter, Catherine; Ford, Timothy E.


The River Ganga in India is one of the most polluted large rivers of the world. Improvements in wastewater and sewage treatment infrastructure have not kept pace with the rapid population and industrial growth occurring over the past several decades. The Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF) was founded in 1982 in response to public concern about sewage pollution of the River Ganga in Varanasi. The Government of India initiated the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985 to address water pollution issues affecting the Ganga in Varanasi and a small number of other large cities. Surveillance and water quality testing conducted by the SMF quickly revealed many shortcomings of the GAP program. Since its completion, GAP has widely been acknowledged as a failure. Some thirty years later, the SMF continues its education and lobbying efforts to promote truly effective planning and action, and a site-specifi c technical solution, to remedy Ganga pollution. In this article, a summary of water quality monitoring data compiled by the Foundation beginning in 1992 is presented to highlight the magnitude of the sewage pollution problem in Varanasi.


ganga river • ganges • sewage pollution

"The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."

- Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India

Every morning, Mallika Ganpati wakes up at her small home in Varanasi, India and walks a mile to the river Ganges, also called the Ganga, to collect water for her family. Mallika is one of 784 million people worldwide who walk long distances every day to access the water they need to survive.

Mallika relies on water from the Ganges for all of her household needs. Along with her husband Somit, Mallika and her children drink, cook, bathe and wash their clothes with Ganges water. The water is also important for Somit’s work as a buffalo herder. He often takes his buffalo to the river and washes them before bringing them to pasture.

When you multiply this practice by thousands of herders and add the many other forms of human, animal, and industrial waste dumped into the Ganges every day along its approximately 2,505 km course, the result is an extremely polluted river. One third of India’s 1.2 billion people live near the river and many of them, like the Ganpati family, frequently become sick with intestinal infections from the water.

The Ganges originates from the Gangotri Glacier on the southern flank of the Himalayan Mountains. Global climate change Any significant change in the measures of climate that occur over several decades or longer; most notable today is the ongoing rise in global average temperature near Earth's surface, caused mostly by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. View Source is reducing the size of the glacierA large mass of ice moving very slowly through a valley or spreading outward from a center. Glaciers form over many years from packed snow in areas where snow accumulates faster than it melts. A glacier is always moving, but when its forward edge melts faster than the ice behind it advances, the glacier as a whole shrinks backward.View Source
glacier. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. (2005). Retrieved November 18 2014 from, lowering the water volume flowing downstream. Even though ten major tributaries add to the Ganges river system as it moves south, this does not add enough water to offset the decrease in water volume coming from the Gangotri Glacier. Therefore, as the glacier reduces in size, the amount of water available for use in the Ganges decreases, causing an increase in the concentration of pollutants in the river. This makes it more likely that people like Mallike and her family will get sick from the river water.

The government of India has long undertaken water diversion and damming projects to control the changing river, but this typically creates other environmental and social problems. Diversion and damming increase the salinityA solution containing salt; salty. The concentration of salt in a solution is the solution's salinity. The average salinity of the earth's oceans is 35ppm (parts salt per million parts water). of the river, introduce invasive species An organism that thrives in a new environment where it is not native, and can out-compete the native organisms, causing ecological and economic harm.   and impede natural migration patterns. A single dam, for example, can inhibit fish spawning. This lowers fish populations, which triggers overfishing, and species extinction The irreversible disappearance of a species; species have gone extinct at a relatively constant rate over geologic time. Periods of greatly accelerated extinction rates - mass extinctions - have occurred periodically throughout  the history of life on Earth due to  meteor impacts and other extreme events. The biosphere is currently experiencing a mass extinction event caused by human activity.   .

Diversion and damming also have political repercussions. When India harnesses the Ganges for a hydroelectric dam, water availability to the country of Bangladesh is lowered. This practice heightens political conflict between the nations and raises ethical issues about fair water distribution.

Mallika’s city of Varanasi is upriver from India’s water conflicts with Bangladesh. However, the city has water problems of its own that are related to Hindu spirituality The inner convictions that give meaning to one's life and expressed in how one acts. .

Varanasi is the holiest place in the Hindu[Hinduism]: An ancient  and diverse religious and cultural tradition of Southeast Asia, characterized by the belief in reincarnation, one absolute being of multiple manifestations, the law of cause and effect, following the path of righteousness, and the desire for liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. religion. In Hindu mythology, the river Ganges is the incarnation of the Mother Goddess Ganga. According to Hindu legend, King Bhagirathi wanted Ganga to come down from heaven and wash away the sins of his ancestors. She finally agreed, but with the warning that her unchecked fall would bring destructive floods. The King begged Lord Siva to catch Ganga’s torrent of waters in the matted locks of his hair. Lord Siva’s kindness broke the force of the flood and turned it into a mighty river that brings agricultural bounty to the land, purifies those who bathe in its waters, and cleanses the souls of the departed.

This Hindu spiritual tradition accounts for the millions of Indians who come to Varanasi every year to bathe in the Ganges. It also accounts for the daily disposal of cremated human remains into the river. Occasionally dead bodies are lowered into the river with ropes without being cremated. Mallika sometimes sees these bodies bobbing on the surface of the river as she gathers her daily water supply. However, this does not cause Mallika to worry about the quality of the river water for drinking. She believes that Mother Goddess Ganga will protect the river for eternity.

Yet, Mallika also notices that other Indians are motivated by Hindu spirituality to take action to clean the Ganges. During one of her walks to gather water, she was asked to sign a Clean the Ganga petition. The organizers of the petition drive hope to influence the Indian government to construct waste treatment plants at Varanasi that do not require electricity and that would remove harmful bacteria and sewage from the water.

This brief case study of the river Ganges raises important questions that you will consider in this chapter as you imagine an Earth The planet on which we live; the third planet from the sun in our solar system. with clean water resources for your community, now and in the future.

  • What are the properties of water that make it essential for life on Earth? What is the current condition of the planet’s water resources? What are the major human impacts on water quality and quantity of water in the world today?
  • What ethical challenges do we face in protecting the quantity and quality of Earth’s water resources? What moral principles Standards or rules that help define right and wrong human actions. , moral goals Aims toward which human beings direct their action for the sake of a morally good result. , and moral virtues Features of a person’s character that contribute to the well-being of persons, human societies, and the natural world. should guide our decisions about the use and distribution of water?
  • How have human beings approached the nature and meaning of water from a spiritual perspective? What aspects of our spirituality might we draw on to help us address the global water crisis?
  • What actions are being taken in the world today that are hopeful signs for the future quality and availability of water on Earth? Are there indications of the Earth’s water crisis in your community? How could you take action to begin healing the Earth’s water crisis in your community?

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