More than a million devout Hindus bathed in the Ganges River Friday, braving the risk of terrorist attack, stampede and petty crime for the chance to wash away the sins of a lifetime and open the gateway to heaven after death.
But perhaps the greatest threat to the devotees who flocked to Haridwar, India, on one of the most auspicious days of the triennial Kumbh Mela festival, was the water itself.
The river River Ganges is intensely polluted with sewage and industrial waste. Water-treatment facilities have been unable to keep up with India's rapid growth, often held back by a shortage of funds and other resources.
It is believed in India that a dip in the Ganges washes away all sins. But increasingly it has become heavily polluted with sewage and industrial waste. Now, a $4 billion government program has been launched which aims to clean the river. The spiritually cleansing waters of the Ganges are about to get some cleaning of their own. The Indian government has embarked on a $4 billion campaign to ensure that by 2020 no untreated municipal sewage or industrial runoff enters the 1,560-mile river.
Only 31% of municipal sewage in India undergoes treatment, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, a government agency in New Delhi, while the rest gets discharged into the country's rivers, ponds, land and seas, contaminating underground and surface waters. More than 500,000 of the 10.3 million deaths in India in 2004 resulted from waterborne diseases, according to the most recent comprehensive mortality data from the World Health Organization.
The filth in the Ganges holds special resonance for the Hindu nation of India. The Ganges basin supports more than 400 million of India's 1.1 billion people, the majority of whom are Hindus, who revere the river as "mother" and "goddess." This cleanup initiative, supported by the World Bank, includes the expansion of traditional treatment facilities and, for the first time in India, the introduction of innovative river-cleaning methods.
Ask Veer Bhadra Mishra, a 70-year-old priest and hydraulics engineer from Varanasi, the holy city downstream from Haridwar, who has been a prominent advocate of treatment methods used abroad but not yet in India. He suggests to introduce a system to divert sewage and effluents, before they enter the river, to a series of specially designed ponds, for treatment and ultimately to be used use in irrigation or directed back into the river. Unfortunately his efforts were mired in court and by opposition from local bureaucrats as they had a "difference of opinion" with Mr. Mishra about the best way to clean the river.
The Ganga Pollution Control Unit, the local government body charged with running government treatment facilities in Varanasi says the current technologies already in use are time-tested and reliable, but suffer from a lack of trained manpower, proper infrastructure, and shortage of funds for equipment maintenance.
Last summer, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh identified cleaning up the river as a national priority, the government in New Delhi increased funding to operate and maintain conventional treatment facilities, and also approved Mr. Mishra's plan—giving $184,000 to his organization, the Sankat Mochan Foundation, for the design of a new sewage treatment plant.
The foundation is now working with GO2 Water Inc., a Berkeley, California based wastewater-technology Company. In the plan, 10.5 million gallons of sewage a day—13% of the daily output from Varanasi's 1.5 million people—will be intercepted daily at the riverbank, and diverted. In a nearby village, water will pass through a series of ponds, where sunlight, gravity, bacteria and microalgae will clean the water. A larger pond system is planned, to process 33% more of the city's sewage.
Devout Hindus come from all over to cleanse themselves in the Ganges for the festival of Kumbh Mela, celebrated every three years. The government has started a massive campaign to clean up the polluted river itself.
In Haridwar, the National Botanical Research Institute is developing a wetland with local species of reeds to absorb the polluting elements from the wastewater,
With 100 milliliters of the rivers water being laden with 29,000 coliform bacteria, which potentially cause diseases the pollution at this stage is very dangerous and it is high time that the Government and the common man arise together to ensure success of this initiative.