“The Ganges’ Next Life” by Alexander Stille, The New Yorker
Stille, A. “The Ganges’ Next Life.” The New Yorker. 19 January 1998.
The Ganges’ Next Life
By Alexander Stille, The New Yorker
January 19, 1998
ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about the sacred Ganges river in India, which is polluted with sewage, human remains, and industrial waste. The river, which starts at Nepal, in the Himalayas, flows fifteen hundred miles through India and Bangladesh, and empties into the Bay of Bengal at Calcutta, is viewed by Hindus as a goddess, a river that is pure and purifying. It is the dream of all good Hindus to visit Varanasi, the holiest city in India, and bathe in the Ganges at least once in their lives. But in some places at Varanasi, the fecal-coliform count has been known to reach a hundred and seventy million bacteria per hundred millilitres of water—three hundred and forty thousand times the acceptable level of five hundred per hundred millilitres. Some five hundred million people now live in the basin of the Ganges and its tributaries.
A hundred and fourteen cities dump their raw sewage directly into the river. Waterborne illnesses like amebic dysentery, typhoid, and cholera are common killers, especially among children. Veer Bhadra Mishra, a spiritual leader and civil engineer, is trying to clean up the river. In 1982, Mishra founded, with two other engineers from Banaras Hindu University, where he is a professor of hydraulic engineering, the Sankat Mochan Foundation, a private secular organization dedicated to cleaning the Ganges. The foundation has teamed with an American, William Oswald, an expert on algae who pioneered a system in which sewage is treated in a carefully engineered series of natural algae ponds. Oswald and Mishra’s Sankat Mochan Foundation are conducting a feasibility study for a waste-pond system at Varanasi. About forty thousand traditional funerals are performed on the banks of the Ganges annually, but the biggest source of pollution are the large sewage pipes that drain directly into the river. The Indian government spent about a hundred and fifty million dollars building Western-style high-technology wastewater plants along the Ganges, but they are ill-suited to India, which is beset by power outages and monsoons. The foundation has won the support of both the central and municipal governments; the final obstacle to building the ponds remains the state government of Uttar Pradesh.