Skip to main content

Ganges: Urbanites contribute 100 times more microbial pollution than rural counterparts

Ganges catchment at Jehangira island, Sultanganj, Bihar. Photo: Jack Wickes 
By David Milledge*, Josh Bunce**
The Ganges is a lifeline for millions of people who live within its catchment as a source of water, transport and food. During the Hindu pilgrimage known as Kumbh Mela the Ganges plays host to the largest human gathering on Earth as 120m people arrive to bathe in the river over 49 days.
Despite its tremendous spiritual significance, the Ganges is also notorious for having some of the most polluted water in the world. For 79% of the population of the Ganges catchment, their nearest river fails sewage pollution standards for crop irrigation. Some 85% of the population live near water that isn’t safe for bathing and Allahabad – where Kumbh Mela takes place in 2019 – is one of those places.
Our own research suggests that as the number of people living in nearby cities increases, the problem with water quality in the Ganges worsens. Urban populations in the Ganges catchment contribute around 100 times more microbial pollution per head to the river than their rural counterparts. This means that untreated sewage discharged from a sewer appears worse for river water quality than sewage discharge where there are no sewers at all.
When we examined 10 years of water quality data we found that the concentration of faecal coliforms – a common pollution indicator found in human faeces – increased when the density of people living upstream increased. This makes sense: more people means more poo.
But we also found that people living in cities in India contribute more pollution per person than those in rural areas – how much more depends on the population density. A person living in an area in India with 1,000 people per km², a density similar to central London, contributes on average 100 times more pollution to the nearest river than they would in an area with 100 people per km² – say, rural Devon in the UK.
Predicted sewage pollution across Ganges catchment. 
So why does it appear that a person living in an Indian city produces more sewage pollution than someone living in the countryside?
Of course, people in the cities are unlikely to actually contribute significantly more faeces than those in rural communities. Instead, it’s probably sewers that are to blame. In cities, extensive sewage networks efficiently flush sewage to the river, whereas in rural areas more people defecate in the open or in pit latrines. This means faeces in rural areas are less likely to be washed into the river and the bacteria and viruses they carry are more likely to die in situ.
As the population density of a place increases, sewers become more common. Sewage removal is essential for the protection of public health, but without effective treatment, as is typically the case in the Ganges catchment, it comes at the cost of increased river pollution and waterborne diseases for people living downstream.
It’s therefore clear that water quality in the Ganges is a more complex and widespread problem than previously thought. We’d expected that cities, with their more advanced sewage management, would be better for the river. What we found was the opposite – more sewers without sewage treatment makes river pollution worse.
The urgency to invest, not only in sewers, but in the treatment of sewage has never been greater – especially in the most densely populated areas. However, the Western approach of taking all waste to a central treatment plant is expensive and so may not be the best solution.
Onsite treatment technologies such as off-grid toilets or decentralised treatment plants are rapidly developing and may help improve river water quality sooner, enabling more and more people to celebrate Kumbh Mela safely.
---
*Research Fellow, **Researcher in Environmental Engineering, Newcastle University. This article was first published here

Comments

TRENDING

Young environmentalist's arrest 'sinister', even parents not told of her whereabouts

By Our Representative  The Coalition for Environmental Justice in India (CEJI), a civil society network, has said that it is “highly disturbing” that Disha Ravi, a young woman climate activist from Bengaluru was “picked up” in what is referred to as a “closely guarded operation” of the Delhi police. Disha, 21, has been remanded to police custody for five days after she was taken from Bengaluru to Delhi.

Mukesh Ambani's earnings during Covid 'can lift' 40% informal workers out of poverty

By Dr Gian Singh*  The Inequality Virus Report released by Oxfam, a non-profit organization, on January 25, 2021 on the growing inequalities in different parts of the world, sheds light on the growing economic, educational, healthcare and gender inequalities in India. The report has revealed that the wealth of billionaires has increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown period in the country.

US forensic revelation enough evidence to release Sudha Bharadwaj, others: Civicus

Counterview Desk  Civicus, a Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organisations and activists claiming to have presence in 175 countries with 9,000 members and working for strengthening citizen action, has sought immediate release of Sudha Bharadwaj, arrested in 2018 under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Golwalkar's views on tricolour, martyrs, minorities, caste as per RSS archives

By Shamsul Islam*  First time in the history of independent India, the in-charge minister of the Cultural Ministry in the current Modi government, Prahlad Singh Patel, has glorified MS Golwalkar, second supremo of the RSS and the most prominent ideologue of the RSS till date, on his birth anniversary, February 19. In a tweet he wrote : “Remembering a great thinker, scholar, and remarkable leader #MSGolwalkar on his birth anniversary. His thoughts will remain a source of inspiration & continue to guide generations.”

No Election Commission safeguard against electromagnetic hacking of EVM: Study

Counterview Desk  Releasing a new study simultaneously in Chennai and Kolkata in view of the forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) – a civil society initiative – has regretted “lack of integrity of EVM voting”, pointing out, the Election Commission of India (ECI) does not appear to safeguard against the possibilities of ‘side-channel attacks’, i.e, hacking electronic devices through electromagnetic and other methods.

20% of FIRs against journalists in 2020 alone, targeted attacks in 2021 'too many to count'

Counterview Desk  Condemning what it calls “alarming rise in state repression and clampdown on news outlets and journalists” that “expose” the anti-people nature of the establishment, India's top civil society network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has demanded “immediate release of arrested journalists, withdrawal of arbitrary charges and protection of media persons facing threats.”

'Viability' of agricultural cooperatives vs govt proposed pro-corporate economic model

Dr Gian Singh* The farmer struggle started from Punjab against the promulgation of three agricultural ordinances by the Union government in June 2020 and the enactment of three bills by Parliament in September 2020 to replace these ordinances is unique in many respects. There is no other example of such a peaceful and democratic farmer struggle.

Whither right to food? Social security scheme allocation for woman, child 'reduced'

Counterview Desk Pointing out that women and children have been ignored in the Union Budget 2021-22, the advocacy group Right to Food Campaign (RtFC) has said that the Government of India should have taken into account the fact that even after the lockdown was lifted, distress among marginalized communities continues, with people having lower incomes and reduced food consumption.

NAPM extends support to Indian, Aussie citizen groups 'opposing' Adani ventures

#StopAdani action in Australia  Counterview Desk  The civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), extending solidarity to the global campaign by the Youth Action to Stop Adani (YAStA), held in recently in Australia and India, has said that the effort was to bring more attention to the struggle aboriginal, indigenous peoples, farmers, working class and other oppressed communities against allegedly anti-people multinational corporate conglomerates.