Which bacteria are found in Ganga water?

Mission: clean river
The revival of the corridor

"Namami" means "I bow". The Sanskrit word gives its name to the "Namami Ganges" action plan, which the government launched in 2014 to help the Ganges to regain health. The interim results are mixed.

By Holger Schäfer

40 percent of the Indian population live in the lowlands of the Ganges and its tributaries. The life-giving river stretches over 2500 kilometers from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. People bathe in it, cook and wash with its water.
But: Unfiltered household and industrial wastewater, garbage and excrement also end up in the river. The amount of pollutants in water has long been frightening. Several action plans that have been in place since the 1980s have not brought about any improvement.

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In order to finally get the problem under control, the Indian government launched the “Namami Gange Program” in 2014 at the beginning of the current legislative period, based at the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Rejuvenation of the Ganges. The aim is to "revive" this important river. The government has approved 2.5 billion euros for the first five years.

Sluggish implementation

But the program got off to a slow start. In mid-2017, it was only clear for 18 percent of the expenditures what they actually wanted to be used for - for example in upgrading existing and building new sewage treatment plants.
The first sewers and sewage treatment plants have now been built, but nowhere near as many as planned: 63 projects in the field of "sewage infrastructure" had been completed by autumn 2018, 236 were planned. The new or renovated sewage treatment plants can purify 328 million liters of wastewater - The target was 2000 million liters. Sewers with a length of 100 kilometers were built - over 2000 kilometers were planned.

Additional burden: industry and religious ceremonies

The river is particularly troubled by industrial wastewater, such as the textile industry in Kanpur, which uses toxic dyes and tannins in leather production. According to the responsible ministry, some tanneries that refused to install filter systems were closed. Nevertheless, large amounts of pollutants, e.g. toxic chromium, continue to flow into the river.
Religious ceremonies also contribute to river pollution. Every year, thousands of statues of gods such as those of Durga or Ganesha end up in the rivers for their celebrations of honor.

The plaster of paris of the figures and the colors with which they are painted pollute the river water. Also controversial from an environmental point of view is the tradition of burning the corpses of the deceased on the bank and handing the remains to the river.

Germany also helps

Since 2016, the Indian government has also been working on the Ganges project with the German "Society for International Cooperation (GiZ)". Germany is investing three million euros, the EU is adding another 2.4 million euros. On the one hand, five GiZ employees help to improve and standardize the measurements of the pollutants. On the other hand, they advise the cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh on wastewater management. Both are places of pilgrimage on the upper reaches of the Ganges, where it leaves the Himalayan mountains and the pollution begins.
One of their main tasks there is to improve the effectiveness of the municipal sewage treatment plants. Often it is very simple things like regular cleaning of a rake that simply does not take place. "Clear, well-structured work instructions at the various stations in the clarification process can help," says Martina Burkard, who heads the project on the German side.
Burkard hopes that the condition of the corridor can gradually be improved: “The task can be solved, but it takes a lot of energy and many small steps. You can't hide behind the fact that the problem is too big to solve. "

New toilets, less rubbish

The Ganges program is flanked by another government environmental initiative: the so-called "Swachh Bharat Abhiyan", the "Clean India Mission". As part of this program, the state has built or subsidized more than 50 million toilets across the country in the past four years, around three million of them along the Ganges. In 99 percent of the villages along the river, according to official information, there is now no longer any defecation in the open air.
Nevertheless, the number of E. coli bacteria in the river is still above the tolerance limit of 2500 bacteria per 100 ml: the measurements fluctuate between these 2500 and almost a hundredfold, namely 240,000 bacteria in 100 ml Ganges water.
Waste in the river | Photo: Holger Schäfer © Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi The second goal of the mission is to get a grip on the masses of rubbish that pollutes cities and bodies of water. Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated on posters with a broom in hand.

Fight the garbage and the amount of plastic

Starting in large cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, waste separation is gradually being introduced. In public places and in train stations you can now choose between green bins for organic waste and black bins for residual waste.
New laws could also benefit the Ganges. In order to curb the plastic masses, India's highest court for environmental issues, the “National Green Tribunal”, banned plastic cups and bags in the cities on the Ganges and made them a criminal offense. Those who dump their rubbish on the river bank also risk a fine of several hundred euros. The roughly three million tons of plastic that so far land in the Ganges each year should be reduced.

A guru for the rivers

One of the country's best-known gurus: Jaggi Vasudev, known as "Sadhguru", ensures that all of these measures are accepted. Vasudev calls for the Ganges and all other Indian rivers to be cleaned and spared. “We must finally treat our rivers as a national treasure,” he says.
His campaign “Rally for Rivers” took him all over the country in 2017. Tens of thousands of people came to the rallies, also attracted by accompanying appearances by well-known bands and regional politicians.
The guru also set up a hotline to call anyone who would like to support him in his work for the rivers - 120 million people did so, a considerable number even by Indian standards.
But what have all the actions and measures brought so far? The "Center for Science and Environment" in Delhi compared measurements of water quality by government authorities from 2016 and 2018, including the oxygen demand of the water. This clearly shows the level of pollution: the larger the pollution, the higher the oxygen demand. Bathing is not recommended if the oxygen requirement exceeds two milligrams per liter (mg / l).
In some places this oxygen demand fell during the study period, for example in Allahabad from 4.2 to 3.8 mg / l or in Patna from 2.5 to 2.2 mg / l - in others, however, it increased further, such as in Kanpur from 6 .5 to 8.5 mg / l or in Varanasi from 5.5 to 5.6 mg / l. The results of the "Namami Gange Program" are therefore mixed with a view to the water quality.

Alternative ideas

Beyond the government programs, scientists like Vikram Soni from Nehru University in Delhi have very different ideas. "In order to obtain clean water, we should make better use of the alluvial surfaces of the rivers, because there is great potential," says Soni. After all, in the case of the large rivers that come from the Himalayas, they are up to 20 kilometers wide and 100 meters deep. The water can be extracted from the sandbanks using pumps.
“Of course not more than nature replenishes every year.” Soni has calculated that cities along the Ganges with up to three million inhabitants could meet their needs for - clean - water just by this method. Innovations like these could also help ensure that the Ganges becomes the lifeline that it has always been.


Holger Schäfer works as a freelance journalist in Mainz. He knows India from his time as a journalist and German teacher in the country. In 2017 he received a scholarship from the exchange program "Media Ambassador India-Germany".

Copyright: © Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi
May 2019

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