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Tuesday, 27 June, 2000, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
The Ganges: Troubled waters
The BBC Hindi Service's Shiv Kant travelled down the Ganges from its source to the delta.

No river in the world plays a more important economic, social and cultural role in the lives of more people than the Ganges.

Emerging from the central Himalayas, the river flows through the north Indian planes, providing water and drainage for over 350 million people.

It is a meeting point for both the rich and poor, who believe it is a divine route to heaven. Ironically, this divine status may be threatening the river's very existence.

Source of the river

The river emerges in spectacular fashion from an ice cave under the Gangotri glacier, which is receding by hundreds of feet every year.

The glacier which supplies the Ganges is retreating
A team of glaciologists monitoring the glacier blame global warming, which is causing a decline in the snowfall needed to replenish the glacier.

But they also point to the mushrooming huts and tents around the glacier used by a rising tide of pilgrims, who further increase the temperature by burning fossil fuel.

The river is also fed by a dwindling supply of subsoil streams. These streams are drying up because much of the forest has been cut down.

Dirty waters

Soon after the Ganges begins its slow journey through north Indian planes, some 165 miles downstream at Rishi Kesh, most of its dry-season flow is diverted to canals, first at Haridwar and then near Aligarh.

Riverside rubbish moutains near the holy city of Benaras
Riverside rubbish moutains near the holy city of Benaras
At the same time, towns and industries discharge a large amount of waste in the sacred waters.

By the time the river leaves Kanpur, one of the big industrial centres along the river, the load of human, animal and industrial waste becomes overwhelming, threatening the rare species of fish, dolphins and soft-shell turtles.

Fighting pollution

Alarmed by the rising level of pollution, the Indian authorities launched an ambitious Ganga Action Plan in 1986 to clean the river.

Narora nuclear power plant
Narora nuclear power plant discharges its waters into the Lower Ganges canal
But 14 years on, the environmentalists say little has been achieved.

Although more than $600m has been spent, environmentalists say it was largely on inappropriate technology.

For example, sewage treatment plants were bought, which need constant power supplies that are not available.

However, the experts say the level of pollution in the river has been contained, even if it has not been eliminated.

Meanwhile, the government is planning to build more than 50 dams and barrages to regulate the river-flow, supply water and generate power. The largest of them near Tehri has already attracted controversy amid concerns about safety and the envirnoment.

Into Bangladesh

The river has also been the source of long-standing water dispute with Bangladesh.

India has built a barrage just before the Ganges enters Bangladesh in order to keep the port of Calcutta open during summer.

Bangladesh complains that the diversion leaves little water in the river, turning its south-western parts into a desert.

Both countries made a new agreement in 1998 to share the river water but the problem won't go unless serious effort is made to improve the dry-season flow.

The population in the Ganges river basin is growing at an alarming rate. And as more and more people move to the cities, demand for water is set to explode.

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