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Indian rivers too polluted to sustain life

Many segments of the River Ganga could well become nothing but desolate stretches of waste should pollution continue.

India’s most holy river is simultaneously regarded with the utmost reverence and treated with complete neglect. Huge amounts of sewage and industrial waste spewed into the river have led some studies to suggest that the river will be incapable of hosting life in the near future.

The Hindu pilgrimage known as Kumbh Mela hosts the largest human gathering on Earth as 120 million people arrive to bathe in the river over a 49-day period. Bathing in the river might be regarded as a cleansing experience. However, at this point, the condition of the river could be seen as harmful to health due to the sheer number of contaminants in its waters.

Pollution overhangs a section of the Ganges River in Patna, Bihar.

Human waste, one of the primary pollutants


Human waste accounts for a significant portion pollution in the Ganga. This is often pumped directly into the river through sewage lines. In a proportional manner, as the number of individuals living close to the river increases, so too does the waste deposited into the river. As India’s population continues to surge, more contaminants are being dumped into the Ganga.

The River Ganga has a population density of 1,000 people every square mile, making it the world’s most populous river basin. For 79 percent of the population of the Ganga catchment area, the closest segment of the river fails sewage pollution standards for crop irrigation. A further 85 percent of the population live near water that is not considered safe for bathing. This figure is of particular note as Allahabad — where Kumbh Mela is set to take place in 2019 — is one of those places.


Sediment records suggest that recovery of the river is looking ever more unlikely


Recent studies have analysed the river sediment in the Ganga. The results paint a dire picture. Sediment records are useful in predicting a more long term projection of water quality. While water contamination levels give results of the current situation, sediment records can give an indication of the types of chemicals likely to leach into the water over a longer period.

In particular, dissolved oxygen levels are an important parameter for assessing long term health of a water source. The level of dissolved oxygen can be affected by atmospheric supplies of oxygen, photosynthetic processes, and oxygen-consuming metabolic and chemical processes. If dissolved oxygen falls below the threshold of two milligram per litre, it can lead to mass killing of fish and harm other aquatic life.

The study was conducted along a stretch of the river between Varanasi and Kanpur. This involved taking measurements downstream of two major drains – Wazidpur in Kanpur and Assi in Varanasi. The Wazidpur drain flushes 54 million liters per day (MLD) of industrial waste and the Assi drain releases more than 66 MLD of sewage waste into the river.

These were by no means the most polluted areas, with Jajmau region in Kanpur releasing over 202 MLD of industrial effluvient. Taking tests in these regions was a means to gain a better understanding of the direct effects of such high levels of waste in the immediate area.

Dissolved oxygen levels coincided with pollution levels, with the lowest levels being found in the highly polluted Jajmau region. Close to the source of the waste being deposited, the dissolved oxygen levels were nearing zero.


The impact of industrialisation


Previous studies have focused more on organic regions affecting dissolved oxygen levels, these may include plant and fish life, microorganisms within the sediment, or human waste. Conducting this study in regions surrounding industrial waste output has unveiled an entirely separate factor in oxygen demand within the water.

“High amount of organic carbon and oxygen-demanding chemicals such as ammonia, iron and manganese are flushed into the river from different sources. Our results suggest that for rejuvenation of Ganga, authorities should focus also on the reduction of chemical oxygen demand along with the biological oxygen demand to enhance the ecological assimilation capacity of the river,” said Jitendra Pandey, a researcher of the Institute of Science, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

Industrial waste is leaving the surround areas inhospitable to life. As India furthers its industrialisation, more waste – both human and industrial – will be pumped into its rivers. If areas of rivers — both the Ganga and others — are made into desolate wastelands, they may simply not recover. As chemicals are being continuously deposited into the sediment and soil surrounding the rivers, the leaching process will keep them polluted for years to come, making the return of wildlife and plants to the area far less likely.

While India is beginning to enact new green policies to combat pollution and climate change, damage is being done by the day. If the situation is to be slowed, and potentially reversed, the process of enacting these policies must be hastened considerably.


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