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Symbol of a Country

Where the Ganges flows, there is joy. – Hindustani proverb

According to the Hindus of India, it is a sacred river. Their belief is that bathing in it washes away sins and helps one to attain salvation. Dying in Varanasi, the holy city through which it flows, ensures that the soul is released from an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Millions of people make pilgrimages to the river every year.

The Ganges is the symbol of India, representing the country’s ancient civilization. It possesses both religious and economic significance and its importance to the country is enormous. However, consistent polluting over the years from sewage and boats has created massive problems. In addition, global warming is threatening to cut the source of the river’s flow. If nothing is done to remedy these problems, the river could be completely dead and gone within the next few decades.

The livelihood and religion of millions of Hindus are being threatened. India, as one of the most culturally rich nations in the world, should attempt to preserve its most precious symbol of beauty.

Embodiment of the Goddess

At 1,560 miles long, the Ganges flows through four countries including China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Its source is the Ghaumukh glacier in the southern Himalayas on the Indian side of the Tibetan border.

The river basin of the Ganges is 400,000 square miles and one of the most densely populated basins in the entire world. It flows through over 100 cities and towns, many with populations over 100,000. The people of the Ganges basin are ethnically diverse including Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Afghans and Persians. The Hindus regar d the river as the holiest of rivers. In India, pilgrimage sites along its shores are numerous and significant. Seeing people bathe and cleanse in the river for ritual purposes is a common sight. For Hindus who do not live near the river, bathing in it is often a lifelong ambition and making a pilgrimage to it can be a life-changing event. It is a regular occurrence that ashes of the deceased are scattered in the river with the belief that the water will guide the souls to their next destination. Hindus also frequently take water from the Ganges back to their homes, mixing it with a larger amount of water from another source and turning it holy.

In addition to religious significance, the Ganges also possesses economic significance. Since ancient times, water from the Ganges has been used to irrigate crops such as sugarcane, cotton, potatoes and lentils. The river has historically been used for boat transportation of goods including teas and grains, though less in the last many decades due to the advent of the railroad. The river generates significant hydroelectric power, up to 13 million kilowatts. Nearly half the power is generated for use in India. The river also holds much tourist appeal, not only for purposes of pilgrimage, but also for river rafting and other forms of leisurely boating.

The Ganges is everything to Hindus, including the embodiment of the goddess Ganga and the opportunity to attain nirvana. But in its current condition it is getting further and further away from the holiness and beauty it is best known for.

Murky Waters

It’s a sad fact, but the problems that are greatly affecting much of the natural world are also affecting the Ganges.

Pollution has been destroying the river for many decades. Millions of gallons of untreated sewage enter the river on a daily basis. Improper cremation of the deceased results in partially burnt corpses floating in the water. Numerous industries along the river, especially the leather industry, uses substantial amounts of chromium during processing, contributing heavily to the river’s chemical content.  Furthermore, the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power and increase in boat traffic has left the waters filthy and dangerous. Dolphins that once populated the river in high numbers have dwindled down to about 5,000.

The river faces another major problem due to global warming. According to climatologists, the Ghaumukh glacier — the Ganges’ Himalayan source of water, is rapidly drying up due to climate change. It provides up to 75 percent of the water for the Ganges during the warmer months of the year. It is estimated that the glacier is receding at a rate of 120 feet per year. If things continue the way they have been and the supply of glacial water completely runs out, the Ganges could end up being merely a seasonal river, dependant upon the strength of the monsoon rains. The shrinking of the glacier is not only bad for the Ganges, but for much of Asia which depends upon it as a fresh water resource.

In 1985, the Indian government set up the Ganga Action Plan in order to build sewage treatment facilities. The government also has scientists and climatologists working to determine what can be done about the glacial recession of the Ghaumukh.

Damage to Religion 

To Hindus, the Ganges is not only a source of life, but it is also a portal into the next life and beyond. At the rate pollution and climate change are negatively affecting the river, there is a chance that in as soon as 20 years, there may be no river left to worship. Pollution and climate change in India is on the verge of destroying thousands of years of cultural history and religious beliefs.

But as one Hindu worshipper praying on the banks of the river in Varanasi stated, “I have absolute faith that my river can and will heal.” In the case of the Ganges, faith alone is likely not enough.