River Ganga Running Dry - Climate Change, Hydropower, Unsustainable Water Use To Blame

river ganga photo

Every year there is massive fluctuation in water levels on the River Ganga in Varanasi. Now, in June, in some places you can more or less walk all the way across the river but at high water all the sand you see will be covered by meters and meters of water. The fluctuations discussed below are in addition to this age-old variation. Photo: Mat McDermott

Post-World Environment Day in Delhi, I've been spending some time along the River Ganga in Varanasi, so this next one coming via The Australian caught my eye. With the monsoon rains a couple weeks off the river is very nearly at the lowest level of the year and there's an extensive sand bank opposite the city. This is normal, but due modern human water withdrawals the river is drying up even more than usual.

The blame is being laid at the feet of the country's major hydroelectric projects in the upper reaches of the river, which hoard massive volumes of river flow in dams and barrages. But unregulated water extraction at all points along the 2500km river, for farming, cities, industry and hydroelectricity, has also reached unsustainable levels.

At the Bim Goda barrage alone, outside the Himalayan tourist town of Haridwar, 9 per cent of the river's total flow is believed to be diverted.

The article also notes that in here in Varanasi the water has receded "as much as 3 meters" in some places from the ghats (stairways which go down to the river and allow bathing, ritual, and boats to dock). That seems like a rather general statement, frankly--in some places there is sand well out from the end of the steps and in others the water is right up to them as there are a couple kilometers of waterfront and none of it is consistent.

But the talk about water withdrawal is genuine, even if like other long-time-coming environmental and climate changes, the river will see plenty of seasonal ups and downs before and end comes.

TreeHugger has covered the issue of unsustainable water use in India as well as hydropower projects a number of times. This, combined with climate change and a growing population means the Ganges River basin faces some serious water issues in the years ahead.

Important cultural and historical note: The Australian article quotes M.C. Mehta, who has been working to get the government of India to clean up the Ganga (it's not that the government wants it dirty, rather there have been decades long battles on how it should be done, the result being inaction).

Mehta says,

In the downstream reaches now there is no flow in the river at all. It's not a good thing. The river has a right to live and a right to sufficient water flows. India is not India without the Ganges.

Ganga is Life, Literally and Metaphorically
The talk of a river have a right to live is not just poetic in India, particular with the Ganga but also with other important spiritual rivers like the Yamuna and others. Ganga is life here, both metaphorically and mythically, but practically for millions of people. She is the source of life and is alive as a being.

Ganga Wouldn't Be The First Of India's Sacred Rivers To Dry Up
Also, India may not be India today or in the history of the past couple thousand years without Ganga, but go back further and Indian civilization was very much without Ganga. Several thousand years ago Indian culture was centered around the Indus and Saraswati rivers. That is, until climate changes, the exact cause of which is unknown, dried up the Saraswati.

Over a period of hundreds of years the river first stopped flowing into the Indian Ocean and eventually dried up completely. With it the entire region in what is modern Pakistan, once amazingly fertile, changed into the desert it is today. The seat of culture in northern India moved eastward to the Ganga and the spiritual, mythological and practical significance of the river changed.

Those changes thousands of years ago occurred in all likelihood without any human cause, certainly not the same cause as today in any case. But in terms of the drying of a sacred river, we may well be entering into that same sort of situation today. In another thousand years India spiritual culture, amazingly adaptable as it is, will change, should the River Ganga change. The tragedy isn't in the change, but the cause of the change.

We know what's causing it this time and we know how to stop it, but through a combination of systemic momentum making change difficult and an unwillingness to change that system, we may not be able to do so.

Haridwar Hardly A 'Tourist Town', Unless It's Religious Tourists
One final note on the general lack of awareness among foreign media on the significance of the different places within the South Asian spiritual landscape: The Australian describes Haridwar as a "tourist town". While plenty of people do go to Haridwar for tourism--it's pretty much where the Himalayan foothills reach the plains and thus is the gateway to the mountains--most people going to Haridwar are going for religious regions. Spiritual tourism perhaps, but not tourism as the word generally indicates. In fact, Haridwar is as nearly a holy place as Varanasi, one of the rotating sites of the world's largest religious gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela. It is in no way a resort town, as The Australian's description implies.

More on the Ganges River
World Bank Approves $1 Billion For Ganges River Cleanup
India Cancels Third Hydropower Project on Tributary For Environmental & Religious Reasons

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