Most ancient civilizations grew along the banks of rivers. Even today, millions of people all over the world live on the banks of rivers and depend on them for their survival.
All of us have seen a river – large or small, either flowing through our town, or somewhere else. Rivers are nothing more than surface water flowing down from a higher altitude to a lower altitude due to the pull of gravity. One river might have its source in a glacier, another in a spring or a lake. Rivers carry dissolved minerals, organic compounds, small grains of sand, gravel, and other material as they flow downstream. Rivers begin as small streams, which grow wider as smaller streams and rivers join them along their course across the land. Eventually they flow into seas or oceans. Unfortunately most of the world’s major rivers are heavily polluted.
The pollution of environment is the ´gift´ of the industrial revolution. Prior to this the agrarian cultures created
significant environmental deterioration in the form of soil erosion- through deforestation and overgrazing. The environmental degradation is a by product of modern civilization.
There has been a steady deterioration in the quality of water of Indian rivers over several decades. India´s fourteen major, 55 minor and several hundred small rivers receive millions of litres of sewage, industrial and agricultural wastes. Most of these rivers have been rendered to the level of sewage flowing drains. There are serious water quality problems in the cities, towns and villages using these waters. Water borne diseases are rampant, fisheries are on decline, and even cattle are not spared from the onslaught of pollution.
According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) five rivers in Asia serving over 870 million people are among the most threatened in the world, as dams, water extraction and climate change all take their toll.
The Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, Salween-Nu and Mekong-Lancang rivers make up half of the WWF´s “top ten” most threatened river basins.
India has a large number of rivers that are lifelines for the millions living along their banks. These rivers can be categorized into four groups:
1.Rivers that flow down from the Himalayas and are supplied by melting snow and glaciers. This is why these are perennial, that is, they never dry up during the year.
2.The Deccan Plateau rivers, which depend on rainfall for their water.
3.The coastal rivers, especially those on the west coast, which are short and do not retain water throughout the year.
4.The rivers in the inland drainage basin of west Rajasthan, which depend on the rains. These rivers normally drain towards silt lakes or flow into the sand.
River Ganga (Ganges) of India has been held in high esteem since time immemorial and Hindus from all over the world cherish the idea of a holy dip in the river under the faith that by doing so they will get rid of their sins of life. More than 400 million people live along the Ganges River. An estimated 2,000,000 persons ritually bathe daily in the river. Historically also, Ganga is the most important river of the country and beyond doubt is closely connected with the history of civilization as can be noticed from the location of the ancient cities of Hardwar, Prayag, Kashi and Patliputra at its bank. To millions of people it is sustainer of life through multitude of canal system and irrigation of the wasting load. Hundreds of the villages and even the big cities depend for their drinking water on this river. It is believed, a fact which has also been observed, that the water of Ganga never decays even for months and years when water of other rivers and agencies begins to develop bacteria and fungi within a couple of days. This self purification characteristics of Ganga is the key to the holiness and sanctity of its water. The combination of bacteriophages and large populations of people bathing in the river have apparently produced a self-purification effect, in which water-borne bacteria such as dysentery and cholera are killed off, preventing large-scale epidemics. The river also has an unusual ability to retain dissolved oxygen.
With growing civilization and population all over how long Ganga will retain its self purification characteristics only time can judge.
The Gangotri Glacier, a vast expanse of ice five miles by fifteen, at the foothills of the Himalayas (14000 ft) in North Uttar Pradesh is the source of Bhagirathi, which joins with Alaknanda (origins nearby) to form Ganga at the craggy canyon-carved town of Devprayag. Interestingly, the sources of Indus and the Brahmaputra are also geographically fairly close; the former goes through Himachal Pradesh and fans out through Punjab and Sind (Pakistan) into the Arabian Sea. The latter courses for most of its tremendous length under various names through Tibet/China, never far from the Nepal or Indian borders, and then takes a sharp turn near the northeastern tip of India, gathers momentum through Assam before joining the major stream of the Ganga near Dacca in Bangladesh to become the mighty Padma, river of joy and sorrow for much of Bangladesh. From Devprayag to the Bay of Bengal and the vast Sunderbans delta, the Ganga flows some 1550 miles, passing (and giving life to) some of the most populous cities of India, including Kanpur (2 million), Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, and Calcutta (14 million).
The largest tributary to the Ganga is the Ghaghara, which meets it before Patna, in Bihar, bearing much of the Himalayan glacier melt from Northern Nepal. The Gandak, which comes from near Katmandu, is another big Himalayan tributary. Other important rivers that merge with the Ganga are the Son, which originates in the hills of Madhya Pradesh, the Gomti which flows past Lucknow.
A number of investigations have been carried out on the physiochemical and biological characters of the Ganga. Lakshminarayana (1965) published a series of papers reporting the results of studies carried out at Varanasi during the period between March, 1957 and March, 1958. it was observed by him that the values of the most of the parameters decreased during rainy season while no marked variation was observed during winters and summers.
In the same year Chakraborty et.al. (1965) from Kanpur reported the water quality of Ganga at J.K. Rayon´s water intake point and at Golaghat and Bhairoghat pumping stations situated at the upstream of the river. It was concluded that the water quality gradually deteriorated as it passes from Bhairoghat pumping station to the J.K. Rayon water intake point in summers because in this stretch the river received waste waters from number of sewage drains.
A year later Saxena et.al. (1966) made a systematic survey of the chemical quantity of Ganga at Kanpur. According to the study, the biological oxygen demand, i.e. B.O.D. varied from 5.3ppm (minimum) in winter to 16.0ppm (maximum) in summer. The chloride ranged between 9.2 and 12.7 ppm and the river was found to be alkaline in nature except in rainy season. He concluded that the tanneries significantly increased the pollution load of river as they discharge huge amounts of effluents containing organic wastes and heavy metals. It was further reported that forty five tanneries, ten textile mills and several other industrial units discharged 37.15 million gallon per day of waste water generating BOD load of approximately 61630 Kg/day.
Subsequently Agarwal et.al.(1976) studied the bacteriological population of the river water and concluded that
addition of untreated waste and sewage was responsible for the presence of pathogenic organisms posing threat to the residents of the Varanasi city.
Hydrobiological features of the river Ganga was studied by Pahwa and Mehrotra (1966). The authors studied a stretch of 1090 kms. of river Ganga extending from Kanpur in west to Rajmahal, in Jharkhand state, in the east. They reported that the turbidity was maximum (1100-2170 ppm) in monsoon and minimum ( less than100 ppm) during January to June. The pH of the river water ranged between 7.45 (minimum) during June to August and 8.30 (maximum) during January to May. The dissolved oxygen, i.e. D.O. count ranged from 5.0 to 10.5 ppm with maximum values during January and February. While the minimum values were recorded in monsoon.
Bhargava (1982) in a survey of total length of the river Ganga found that quality index was far above the prescribed limit at Kanpur. He further found that the Ganga water was having unusually fast regenerating capacity by bringing down B.O.D. owing to the presence of large amount of well adopted micro-organisms. According to the research Ganga is rich in polymers excreted by various species of bacteria. These polymers being excellent coagulants remove turbidity by coagulation, setting the suspended particles at the sewage discharge point.
At the 1981 session of Indian Science Congress at Varanasi, scientists expressed concern at the growing pollution in the river Ganga in presence of the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi who inaugurated the session. At her instance, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the then member, Planning Commission asked the Central Board for Preventation and Control of Water Pollution, New Delhi to conduct studies on the state of the river Ganga. In collaboration with the State Pollution Control Boards of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal and the centre for study of Man and Environment Kolkata (Calcutta), studies were conducted on the ´Sources´ of pollution including all human activities, land use pattern and water quality of the river at selected sites during 1981-82 and report entitled “Basin, sub-basin inventory of water pollution in the Ganga basin part-II” was published in 1984. according to this report sewage of 27 class I cities and towns and effluents from 137 major industries were the main source of pollution of the river. In addition cremation of dead human bodies and dumping of carcasses aggrevated the pollution of the river.
It was Chandra (1981) who conducted studies on the pollution status of river Ganga at Allahabad, pointed out that industries manufacturing nitrogenous fertilizers have significant role in polluting the river water.
Study carried out in 1986-87 on physico-chemical properties of river Ganga water at Buxar (Unnao) clearly revealed that extent of pollution varied in different seasons. Usually all the 23 parameters studied showed high values in summer and lower during monsoons except turbidity which was high in rainy season. Values of BOD, COD, DO and H2S were recorded high than the tolerance limits. Study on water quality of river Ganga at Kalakankar (Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh) revealed that even at such a remote and undisturbed place like Kalakankar the river water was not safe for drinking and bathing. It was also noted that the river showed an alkaline trend throughout the course of study.
According to the research done by Mehrotra (1990), the various sources responsible for pollution of the river in Varanasi city are domestic sewage effluents of the industries, burning of dead bodies at the ghats, use of detergents, insecticides and pesticides used in agriculture. Study revealed the presence of toxic metals like mercury ( 65 to 520ppb), Lead( less than 10 to 800 ppm), chromium (less than 10 to 200 ppm) and nickel (less than 10 to 130 ppm) in the sediments of Ganga river at Varanasi city.
Upstream from Varanasi, one of the major pilgrimage sites along the river, the water is comparatively pure, having a low Biochemical oxygen demand and fecal coliform count. Studies conducted in 1983 on water samples taken from the right bank of the Ganga at Patna confirm that escheria coli (E.Coli.), fecal streptococci and vibrio cholerae organisms die two to three times faster in the Ganga than in water taken from the rivers Son and Gandak and from dug wells and tube wells in the same area.
The chemical pollution of the river Ganga in Patna city in Bihar state has been found somewhat alarming beside the storm drain, especially in the regions like Rajapur, Mandiri and Krishnaghat.
According to the report published in a book by Mr. U.K. Sinha (1986), the concentration of iron is higher in sediments collected from 10 metres along the bank at Mandiri region. The concentration of all the toxic metals i.e copper, zinc, nickel and cobalt are higher in all the sediments collected from near the storm drain and diminishes towards mid-region of the river. The concentration of zinc is highest in the sediments collected from near the Mandiri storm drain, Antaghat storm drain and Krishnaghat storm drain.
The concentration of copper is highest in the sediments collected from near the Krishnaghat storm drain suggesting the presence copper due to utensil work being done in Thatheri Bazar and hospital wastes also, said report.
For some time now, this romantic view of the Ganges has collided with India’s grim realities. During the past three decades, the country’s explosive growth (at nearly 1.2 billion people, India’s population is second only to China’s), industrialization and rapid urbanization have put unyielding pressure on the sacred stream.
Ganga, the most sacred of rivers for Hindus, has become polluted for some years now. But a recent study by Uttarakhand Environment Conservation and Pollution Control Board says that the level of pollution in the holy river has reached alarming proportions.
Things have come to such a pass that the Ganga water is at present not fit just for drinking and bathing but has become unusable even for agricultural purposes.
As per the UECPCB study, while the level of coliform present in water should be below 50 for drinking purposes, less than 500 for bathing and below 5000 for agricultural use—the present level of coliform in Ganga at Haridwar has reached 5500.
Based on the level of coliform, dissolved oxygen and biochemical oxygen, the study put the water in A, B, C and D categories. While A category is considered fit for drinking, B for bathing, C for agriculture and D is for excessive pollution level.
Since the Ganga waters at Haridwar have more than 5000 coliform and even the level of dissolved oxygen and biochemical oxygen doesn’t conform the prescribed standards, it has been put in the D category.
According to the study, the main cause of high level of coliform in Ganga is due to disposal of human faeces, urine and sewage directly into the river from its starting point in Gaumukh till it reaches Haridwar via Rishikesh.
Nearly 89 million litres of sewage is daily disposed into Ganga from the 12 municipal towns that fall along its route till Haridwar. The amount of sewage disposed into the river increases during the Char Dham Yatra season when nearly 15 lakh pilgrims visit the state between May and October each year.
Apart from sewage disposal of half-burnt human bodies at Haridwar and hazardous medical waste from the base hospital at Srinagar due to absence of an incinerator are also adding to pollution levels in the Ganga.
The result has been the gradual killing of one of India’s most treasured resources. One stretch of the Yamuna River, the Ganges’ main tributary, has been devoid of all aquatic creatures for at least a decade.
In Varanasi, India’s most sacred city, the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by the United Nations world Health Organization. Coliform are rod-shaped bacteria that are normally found in the colons of humans and animals and become a serious contaminant when found in the food or water supply.
A study by Environmental Biology Laboratory, Department pf Zoology, Patna University, showed the presence of mercury in the Ganga river in Varanasi city. According to the study, annual mean concentration of mercury in the river water was 0.00023 ppm. The concentration ranged from NT (not traceable) to 0.00191 ppm.
Study done by Indian Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow during 1986-1992 showed maximum annual concentration of mercury in the Ganga river water at Rishikesh, Allahabad district and Dakshineswar as 0.081, 0.043 and 0.012 ppb respectively.
Ganga river at Varanasi was found well within the maximum permissible standard of 0.001 ppm prescribed for drinking water by the World Health Organization.
The mercury studied in the Ganga river could be traced in biotic as well as abiotic components of the river at the study site. The Hindu devotees take bath in the river where mercury was detected in 28%, 44%,75%, 96%, 42% and 89% of the river water, sediment, benthic fauna, fish, soil and vegetation samples respectively.
Though mercury contamination of the river water has not reached an alarming extent, its presence in the river system is worrisome. In the study annual mean concentration of the metal in the sediments was 0.067 ppm. Sediments constitute a major pool of mercury in fresh water.
As Ganga enters the Varanasi city, Hinduism´s sacred river contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres, 120 times more than is considered safe for bathing. Four miles downstream, with inputs from 24 gushing sewers and 60,000 pilgrim-bathers, the concentration is 3,000 times over the safety limit. In places, the Ganges becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by.
The tannery industry mushrooming in North India has converted the Ganga River into a dumping ground. The tanning industry discharges different types of waste into the environment, primarily in the form of liquid effluents containing organic matters, chromium, sulphide ammonium and other salts. As per an estimate, about 80-90% of the tanneries use chromium as a tanning agent. Of this, the hides take up only 50-70%, while the rest is discharged as effluent. Pollution becomes acute when tanneries are concentrated in clusters in small area like Kanpur. Consequently, the Leather-tanning sector is included in the Red category of industries due to the potential adverse environmental impact caused by tannery wastes.
Highly polluted sediments are adversely affecting the ecological functioning of rivers due to heavy metal mobilization from urban areas into biosphere. Distribution of heavy metals in sediments of the river Ganga and its tributaries have been carried out by several workers. Monitoring of Ganga River from Rishikesh to Varanasi indicated that Kannauj to Kanpur and Varanasi are the most polluted stretches of the river Ganga . Analysis of upstream and down stream water and sediment revealed a 10-fold increase in chromium level.
Agarwal, D.K., Gaur, S.D., Tiwari T.C., Narayanswami, N. and Marwah, S.M. 1976.. Physico-chemical characteristics of Ganges water at Varanasi. India J. Environ. Hlth. 18 (3). 210-206.
Bhargava, D.S.1982. Purification power of the Ganges unmatched. L.S.T. Bull. 34. 52.
Chakraborty, R.N., Saxena, K.L. and Khan, A.Q. 1965. Stream pollution and its effect on water supply. A report of survey, Proc. Symp. Problems in Water treatment. Oct. 29-30, Nagpur. 211-219.
Chandra, K. 1981. Pollution from wastes of industries manufacturing nitrogenous fertilizer. A case study from river Ganga near Allahabad. In Proc. Symp. W.R.C.P.A. Roorkee 11-23 Dec. 141-151
Lakshminarayana, J.S.S. 1965. studies of the phytoplankton of the river Ganges, Varanasi, India, Part-I, Physico chemical characteristics of River Ganga. Hydrobiologia. 25. 119-175.
Mehrotra, M.N. 1990. the role of sediments in environmental pollution: A case study of the Ganga at Varanasi. Jour. of the Ind. Association of Sedimentologists, v.9.1-14.
Pahwa, D.V. and Mehrotra, S.N., 1966. Observations on fluctuation in the abundance of plankton in relation to certain hydrobiological vonditions of river Ganges. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., India, Sec. 36B (2). 157-89.
Saxena, K.L., Chakraborty, A.K., Khan, A.Q., Chattopadhayay, R.N. and Chandra, H. 1966. Pollution study of river near Kanpur. Indian, J. environ. Hlth. 8. 270.
Sinha,A.K., Singh, V.P. and Srivastava, K.,2000.Physico-chemical studies on river Ganga and its tributaries in Uttar Pradesh- the present status.In Pollution and Biomonitoring of Indian Rivers. (ed.) Dr. R.K. Trivedy. ABD Publishers, Jaipur. 1-29.
Sinha, U.K.,1986. Ganga pollution and health hazard. Inter-India Publication, New Delhi.
Dr. Nitish Priyadarshi
Dr. Nitish Priyadarshi is a geologist working on different issues related to geology and environment in Jharkhand State of India.
He is presently working as Lecturer in Department of Environment and Water Management, Ranchi University, India.
Earlier he was awarded a Research Project by Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India under scheme for “Young Scientist” to work on “Arsenic in Coals”. He has carried out different research projects related to water quality, geochemistry,water scarcity, environmental pollution, climate change etc. Recently he has published different geological and environmental related articles in the book “Water Encyclopedia” by John Wiley & Sons.
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