Photo credit: Satish Somasundaram
Climate change is causing the Himalayan source the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river, to dry up. And because the 1,568-mile river holds deep religious and ritualistic significance to India's 800 million Hindus, its ultimate demise could throw into turmoil the intimate religious traditions of the nation's devotees.
The Gangotri glacier, which provides up to 70 percent of the water of the Ganges during the dry summer months, is shrinking at a rate of 40 yards per year—nearly twice as fast as it was 20 years ago, according to scientists. In March, the World Wildlife Fund listed the Ganges among the world's most endangered rivers.
"This may be the first place on earth where global warming could hurt our very religion. We are becoming an endangered species of Hindus," says Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and director of the Varanasi-based Sankat Mochan Foundation, an organization that advocates for the preservation of the Ganges.The Himalayan glaciers that feed directly into the Ganges could vanish by 2030 because of rising temperatures, according to a UN climate report.
The shrinking glaciers also bode ill for Asia's fresh water supply—in India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people. Although the glacier recession produces a short-lived surplus of water, the supply will eventually run out. Experts predict that the Ganges will become a seasonal river largely dependent on monsoon rains.
"There has never been a greater threat for the Ganges," says Mahesh Mehta, an environmental lawyer who has been filing lawsuits against corporations dumping toxins into the Ganges, but is now redirecting his efforts toward the melting glaciers. "If humans don't change their interference, our very religion, our livelihoods are under threat."
Mehta and his fellow environmentalists want the Indian government to enforce strict reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. During last month's Group of Eight conference of the major industrialized nations, however, India joined China and the United States in refusing to support mandatory caps on emissions. :: The Boston Globe