Climate change threatens the sacred Ganges

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The Ganges River has a profound religious and ritual significance for millions of Hindus in India. But climate change is endangering the sacred river, reports Jasvinder Sehgal.

Sunset in Rishikesh, an Indian city at the foot of the Himalayas. Hundreds of people gather on the banks of the Ganges to sing hymns of praise to the goddess of the sacred river. A group sits around a bonfire to perform the yajna – a Hindu sacrifice ritual performed in an open fire, often accompanied by the chanting of mantras. The ritual takes place every night for centuries to thank the river for its flow. The air is heavy with the scent of cow dung, butter and sandalwood incense.

However, today the faithful are concerned that the powerful Ganges, essential for the religion, culture and economy of millions of Indians, may be reduced in the future to a small trickle.

“I have never seen the river transport so little water,” laments Gauri Pandey, a devout shoemaker who has been participating in this ritual for 45 years. “I have seen people crossing the river to the other shore. The water level was below the waist. Some say that, if this trend continues, there are chances that the Ganges will dry up in the next 30 years, “he says.

The Gangotri glacier.It is here, among the mountains, where the Ganges originates.

Disappearance of glaciers

Predictions and information on water levels vary, but the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has included the Ganges, 2,520 kilometers long, among the most threatened rivers in the world. Scientists and ecologists have pointed the finger at the increase in temperatures and the retreat of glaciers.

The holy water originates from the Gangotri glacier, which is more than 5,000 meters above sea level, on the Indian side of the snow-capped Himalayas, and provides 70 percent of the river’s water. But now it is shrinking at a rate of 22 meters per year, almost double that of 20 years ago. “The glacier has been reduced by almost 40 kilometers in 50,000 years,” says Milap Chand Sharma, the country’s leading glaciologist and a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

He adds that scientists estimate that climate change, a consequence of human activity, has led to a faster reduction. The winter snowfall, which keeps the glacier, has been decreasing and affecting the amount of water that flows into the river annually.

Mahesh Sharma, a journalist who attends evening prayers on the river, has visited glaciers more than 50 times in the last three decades and has observed the effects with his own eyes. “The snow has decreased,” he says, adding that even at 5,000 meters, at the source of the Ganges, “you do not feel like wearing very warm clothes.”

A dry river bed.The Ganges used to flow here as well, but now the river bed is exposed and dry.

Impact on people

The Ganges is not only essential for the spiritual life of India, but also supplies 500 million people with drinking water and water for agriculture.

Eight Indian states already face droughts. And according to the International Institute for Water Management (IWMI), the growth of industry and population will imply a 32 percent increase in national water demand by 2050.

A child walks among the polluted waters of the river.Cleaning efforts have increased in the Ganges, one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Kamal Barua sells fish at a local market in Haridwar. He used to live in a village adjacent to the town of Farakka, west of Bengal, but last year, he and his family had to move when the waters they were fishing in were no longer deep enough to make an adequate catch . They are not the only ones.

“My village was located on one of the largest rivers in the world, I never thought I would face water shortages in my whole life,” he says.

Pollution, and not climate change, is a priority

But the sinking of water levels is not the only problem facing the river. When the water comes out of the mountains it is crystal clear. But as it flows through the vast landscape and emerging cities into the sea, it becomes dirtier. Finally, when you reach the Bay of Bengal, the water is no more than a dirty soup.

Wastewater, along with agricultural and industrial waste, has turned the Ganges into the second dirtiest river in the world, behind the Indonesian Citarum. And that is already affecting human health.

Gastrointestinal infections are widespread and typhus has spread. According to the World Health Organization, in 2012 more than 115,000 people died in India because of issues related to water and sanitation. Also, a study from the National Cancer Registry Program reported a higher incidence of cancer among those living along the riverbank.

A group of speakers dressed in yellow, by the river.The Ganges is of great spiritual importance to millions of Hindus.

The Indian government has invested more than 2.5 billion euros in cleaning up contaminated water, an operation that has so far taken priority over water availability, according to UP Singh, general director of the National Mission for a Clean Bargain. Cleaning “is one of our most important long-term goals,” says Singh.

To achieve this, policy makers have proposed three programs that aim to connect rivers across different parts of the country to increase the water supply of those flows that are drying up.

Connecting people with water

However, Rajender Singh, winner of the Stockholm Water Prize – also known as the Nobel Prize for Water – considers the measures insufficient. “The connection of the rivers will not make India free from droughts and floods,” he laments. “It will create tensions and conflicts in the country,” he says.

Singh, which has so far restored eight rivers and helped supply water to more than 1,000 villages in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, criticizes efforts to recover the Ganges to focus too much on large-scale engineering approaches.

On the contrary, Singh advocates the participation of local communities in the planting of trees along the rivers, in order to stop the problems of sedimentation and erosion. Likewise, it is committed to the restoration of the tributaries that feed the Ganges.

“If we want to free our country from drought and floods, we have to connect people with the rivers,” he says.Since Hindus have a deep relationship with their sacred river Ganges, there is already a base on which to build .

Swami Chidanand Saraswati, founder of the NGO Ganga Action , which is dedicated to protecting the river, ends the evening prayers in Rishikesh pointing out the consequences that failure could have: “if the Ganges dies, India dies,” he says.

“The loss of glaciers means the loss of life, water is life, water is a blessing, which is why our main duty is to protect the glaciers,” he concludes.

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