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Even Those Trying to Save the Ganges from Sewage Insist on Bathing in It

India's Ganges River is one of the most heavily polluted bodies of water on the planet. Yet a myth endures that bathing in it, or drinking it, is completely safe.

by Paul Gregoire
Jul 19 2016, 12:00am

It was a few weeks back in Varanasi when I came across Mr. S Kumar and a group of his friends taking their daily bath in the Ganges River. When I suggested that the river might be horribly polluted, he didn't look impressed and told me that daily bathing would give him a long life. "There's no problem eating or drinking it," he said as he gulped down a few handfuls then added "it's very clean water."

A drain flows into the Ganges. All photos by the author

That's not actually accurate, at all. In 2016 the section of the Ganges flowing past Varanasi is one of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet. There are 33 drains along the entire length of the city's 87 ghats, pouring an estimated 250 million liters of untreated sewage into the river daily. A 2006 study counted around 10(8) cells of faecal coliform (a bacteria originating in human intestines) per 100 ml of water. In short, the river at this point is just diluted sewage. Yet it's believed that the thousands of bathing Hindu devotees are immune from getting sick.

Professor Vishwambhar Mishra

I wanted to find out what was being done to clean the river up—if anything—and whether the rumor about immunity had a basis, so I met with Professor Vishwambhar Mishra, president of the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF). The foundation has been running their Clean Ganges Campaign since 1982, when Mishra's father brought the mounting environmental disaster to national attention.

In the mid-80s, the government began constructing a series of sewage treatment plants along the length of the city. But test results compiled at the foundation's own research laboratory show that these plants don't adequately remove fecal coliform bacteria. Over the 25 years they've been monitoring the water only to observe it becoming worse. At some points, such as the junction with the Assi River, the water is completely septic and no aquatic life can survive.

The sewage outlet meeting the Ganges

However, over recent years, there's been renewed hope. Mishra met with now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2013, at the time of the last election campaign. He suggested that Modi, whose electorate is Varanasi, make the issue part of his main campaign speech. "Then to my utter surprise he started with the Ganga issue," Mishra told VICE, using the local term for the river. "And after he became prime minister, he formed the Ganga Ministry, a dedicated ministry for this cause."

Sadly, since these initial steps Professor Mishra says "nothing new has been done." This is despite having met with ministers and informing them that the latest test results from May show the problem is spreading the breadth of the river. In the past the fecal coliform was only contaminating the city side, but it's now present at the opposite bank.

The professor explained that SMF propose the construction of a cost-effective interceptor sewer along the river controlled by gravity. It would divert the sewage to "an appropriate place for treatment," which would allow for water and nutrients to be reused.

To me this all sounded like some level of progress, except that I broached the question of whether those bathing in the river become ill, Mishra's face lit up. "We are also regular bathers in the river," he said, referring to himself and the other SMF staff present. "And we bath and sip Ganga water, knowing what is happening with the Ganga. And I'm healthy."

This was similar to what several of the staff members had told me prior to the meeting. They believe locals have built up an immunity to the river's bacteria, even if their mission is to clean it up.

But according to Sue Lennox, chief executive of OzGreen, the idea that people who bathe in the river don't get ill is a myth. "People get sick, absolutely they get sick," she exclaimed. "Look, people do develop some immunity, but only after they're really sick." Lennox, who's been intimately involved in the Clean Ganges Campaign since 1992, described a situation where people may not be dying but waterborne disease is rampant.

The earlier mentioned 2006 report carried out by American and Indian microbiologists found the incidence of waterborne disease among residents who had access to city-treated water was around 38 percent, but for poorer residents who rely specifically on the river for everyday water supplies it's around 80 to 90 percent.

So actually, the river is making just about everyone sick, and yet, as the SMF have discovered, trying to convince people to keep out of it is just about impossible. That is because, for local people, the Ganges is much more than a body of water, it's an actual living goddess.

Here's Bharat Pandey

Take Bharat Pandey, a Brahmin priest. I came across Bharat at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in the heart of the Varanasi. The 46-year-old told me he's been sitting in the same spot as his ancestors did for thousands of years, performing religious rituals for a living. When I asked him whether the Ganges was polluted, he didn't comprehend where such a question was coming from. He simply replied, "No, Ganga is good life."

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