Case Study: The River Ganges

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"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.

Water buffalo in the Ganges.1

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 River

The Ganges originates in the Himalayan Mountain glaciers. It runs to the southeast for approximately 2,505 km where it empties into the Indian Ocean at the Sundarban Delta.1

The Ganges originates from the Gangotri Glacier on the southern flank of the Himalayan Mountains. Global climate change is reducing the size of the glacier, 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 salinity of the river, introduce invasive species and impede natural migration patterns. A single dam, for example, can inhibit fish spawning. This lowers fish populations, which triggers overfishing, and species extinction.

Descent of Gange by Raja Ravi Varma

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma depicting the descent of the Goddess Ganga.1

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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.

Varanasi is the holiest place in the Hindu 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.

Bathing in Ganges

Thousands of people bathe in the river Ganges at Varanasi every day. Approximately 200 cremations are performed daily, with the ashes dispersed in the river. 1

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 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, moral goals, and moral virtues 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?