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Dépolleur le Gange, le Défi Titanesque de l’Inde

L’Enquête – 14th June, 2012

By Patrick de Jacquelot

Cleaning up the Ganges, the titanic challenge of India

English Translation:

Revered by Hindus, the source of irrigation for agriculture and a veritable lifeline of northern India, the Ganges is often an open sewer. Collosal works are being considered to clean it up. But the bill promises to be heavy.

Dusk in Varanasi, formally known as Benares, the holiest city of the Hindu religion. The crowd presses on the ghats, the steps that descend to the Ganges. Next to the water, a series of celebrants dressed in orange robes spin oil lamps in perfect coordination. This is the ceremony of Aarti, which aims to thank the mother Ganga, goddess of the river, for having provided for the needs of men, today as in all eternity. As the monks say, “it’s a prayer to the deity and the splendor of the Ganges”. If the scene is magical, the fact that it takes place at night contributes to its splendor: the spectators aren’t confronted with the detritus that floats on the sacred waters. A few hours later, at sunrise, the faithful come to perform ritual ablutions in an incredible rush. Many enjoy taking baths or shampooing, others do their laundry. Offerings and detritus are thrown in the river where the city’s wastewater drains blithely: the sacred river then resembles mostly an open sewer.

The Ganges is the river of all superlatives. 2500 kilometers long, it traverses the principle states of northern India. Its basin, with its tributaries, represents a quarter of the country’s surface and more than 400 million inhabitants, making it the most populous of the world. Thirty cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, which are all industrial centers, stake the course of the main river, which is also a major source of irrigation for agriculture. In summary, the river is a veritable lifeline for the northern half of India. A role that is not yesterday’s, and contributes to its other characteristic: its sacred character. For followers of the Hindu religion, the river Ganga is considered “the Mother”, a goddess prominent in their pantheon. To dive in its waters is a purification ritual that all Hindus try to make at least one time in their lives. The water of the Ganges is associated with numerous rituals, and they cast the ashes of the deceased after cremation into its waters. Religious festivals gather incredible crowds on its shores. The 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela saw more than 60 million faithful come to Allahabad, making it “the largest gathering in the history of the world”, according to the World Bank.

The industries installed along the Ganges–tanneries, distilleries, paper mills–provide 20% of the wastewater that is discharged, but it is the most toxic and the least biodegradable.

Extreme pressure

Between its economic role and its social and spiritual importance, the river is submitted to an extraordinary pressure. At the start of its trip, in the Himalayas, the hydroelectric dams multiply. Arriving at the plains, the problems worsen: massive samples for irrigation represent 90% of the river water’s consumption. Above all, the string of cities that border the river discharge in it the wastewater of hundreds of millions of people: 2.9 billion liters each day, though the treatment capacity is 1.1 billion. Not to mention that these installations “only function part of the time, so their effective treatment is very low,” says Sanjay Pahuja, of the environment and water division of the World Bank in New Delhi.

The industries installed along the Ganges–tanneries, distilleries, paper mills–provide 20% of the wastewater that is discharged, but it is the most toxic and the least biodegradable. In the city of Kanpur, the teams from TERI, the environmental research organization led by Rajendra K. Pachauri, found that the owners of tanneries that have facilities to treat their releases “turn them off to save electricity”, recounts Sonia Groveur, researcher in the water division. Another major problem is that of the solid waste (plastics, etc.) thrown into the river. Finally, agricultural pollution is also present but the data is almost non-existent and it is “much less important than that of the cities and industry,” affirms Bharat Lal Seth, deputy director of the water program of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi.

The sacred character of the river contributes also to its deterioration. The offerings continually thrown into the waters, the festivals where hundreds of thousands of people gather on the banks, are sources of pollution, not to forget very particular practices. “At Kanpur,” tells Sonia Grover and her colleague Avneesh Nayal, “we have discovered a custom that we didn’t know: when a young person dies, he is half cremated and the rest of the body is thrown in the river. Given the population, it is a lot of bodies…”

The result of all this, summarizes a study by the World Bank, is that “the Ganges is confronted by extreme pressures in terms of pollution.” An example: the presence of coliforms in the water, which indicate the presence of fecal matter. While the admissible standard is less than MPN/100 ml [most probable number, method of measuring used in microbiology, Editor’s note], the identified figures are 74,083 in Kanpur, 111,556 in Varanasi, and 352,083 near Calcutta… with grave consequences on the health of the inhabitants. According to the World Bank, the diseases propagated by the water in the basin of the Ganges would cost 4 billion dollars per year.

Faced with this dramatic situation, awareness is slow. A first attempt to clean up the river was well launched in 1985 by the Indian government. But its very limited scope — 250 million dollars spent in 20 years — has not had a visible impact on the pollution, which has grown during this period. Today, mobilization is stronger with campaigns launched by environmental specialists, ecological activists, and religious groups attached to the rescue of the “Mother Ganga”. The Indian state has given to the Ganges a status as “national river” and created in 2009 the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), an organization charged with developing a comprehensive approach to the river’s problems. The national government and states crossed by the Ganges are involved, as well as civil society. Objective: to eliminate any discharge of untreated water in the Ganges by 2020! This the most polished specialists find extremely ambitious… The World Bank provides a support key with its experts and 1 billion dollars over the initial 1.55 billion (the rest being provided by India).

Changing mentalities

The task looks complex… At a plenary meeting of the NGRBA in April, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recognized that the efforts made so far “have not had a lot of success”. At the level of the preliminary studies already done, the difficulties are numerous and the available data is insufficient, said Bharat Lal Seth. For the single — essential — component of urban wastewater, “one speaks of treating the wastewater of 450 million people today, who will be 650 or 700 million in twenty years, it’s huge,” exclaims Rémy Vandenbussche, head of the Ganges project for the French engineering group Egis (see box). “It is identifying all the sources of pollution, making a diagnostic of collection networks, building or rebuilding them, building treatment plants…”

Even more delicate, it is necessary to change mentalities. “There is a big problem of education,” explains Sadhvi Bhagawati, an American who’s become a disciple of Pujya Swamiji, a guru who campaigns for the rescue of the Ganges. “One sees poor Indians spend their last to offer flowers to (or “on”)the Ganges…throwing them in packaged in plastic bags. One can’t say to them: ‘You are polluting the river’. Because, for them, the Ganges is the grand destroyer of impurities and to claim that aplastic bag can affect it would be sacrilege. This is why Hindus have let the sacred river fall into this state. But if one says to them that this plastic bag is going to kill a cow that will have eaten it next to the water, they can understand.”

The engagement of religious leaders in the battle can help in this regard. “Our languages are different but our objectives are the same,” affirms the Centre for Science and Environment. Still, this is not always the case. While environmentalists don’t look askance at the damming of the river, Pujya Swamiji denounces an intolerable breach of the divine flow and advocates a total replacement of hydroelectricity by solar energy.

Latent skepticism

The cleaning of the Ganges will therefore be a lengthy task. 80% of the initial budget of 1.5 billion dollars will serve “to mount ten large pilot projects (sanitation works, treatment of wastewater…) to demonstrate their effectiveness”, details Sanjay Pahuja. Public-private partnerships will be tested. The transition to the upper level will be for later. Nobody is likely to predict the magnitude of the task. Many decades and much, much money will be necessary: “cleaning the Rhine has cost nearly 100 billion dollars,” said the head of the World Bank. Hence, there is a certain skepticism sometimes. Bharat Lal Seth believes for example that there is never enough money to build treatment plants everywhere and advocates the use of “unconventional technologies like settling ponds”.

Certains spécialistes en arriveraient Presque à douter du bien-fondé du projet. « Vu la facture prévisible, on peut se demander si l’Inde ne ferait pasmieux de construire des routes ou des écoles », entend-on en privé. D’autres estiment la démarche pleinement justifiée vu les enjeux. « Le problem de l’eau est fondamental à moyen terme, affirme Rémy Vandenbussche, le projet est ambitieux mais pas impossible. Il exigera une combinaisonde financements,de législation, d’éducation et beaucoup de volonté politique. » Sauver un fleuve sacré, après tout, ça n’a pas de prix.

Certain specialists are beginning to doubt the merits of the project. “Given the predictable bill, one may wonder if India would be better to build roads or schools,” one hears in private. Others believe the fully justified approach in view of the issues. “The problem of water is fundamental to the medium term,” affirms Rémy Vandenbussche, “the project is ambitious but not impossible. It will require a mix of financing, legislation, education, and a lot of political will.” Saving a sacred river, after all, has no price.


Cleaning. France places itself in the work of preparing for the cleaning of the Ganges, where it sees the opportunity in terms of considerable contracts for enterprises such as Veolia and Suez. The offensive spearhead: funding granted by the French authorities as a Fasep (study and assistance to the private sector fund) credit of 1.25 million euros, which allows Egis, a subsidiary of the Caisse des Dépôts, to carry out studies on behalf of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Egis works to “finalize the action program, release technical documents, establish a framework contract that serves as calls for tender” to come for the treatment of wastewater, explains Rémy Vandenbussche, responsible for the operation of Egis India, which considers this contract as “very important for the strategic plan”. Suez and its filial Degrémont, specializing in the construction of treatment plants, are following the project closely.