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

IMA vs Ramdev: Why what's good or bad for goose should be good or bad for gander

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD* Baba Ramdev and his associate Balkrishna faced the wrath of the Supreme Court for their propaganda about their Ayurvedic products and belittling mainstream medicine. Baba Ramdev had to apologize in court. His apology was not accepted and he may face the contempt of court with harsher punishment. The Supreme Court acted on a public interest litigation (PIL) moved by the Indian Medical Association (IMA).

Women innovators on simple, revolutionary alternate solutions for water problems

By Proshakha Maitra, Mansee Bal Bhargava* The detrimental effects of uncontrolled population rise and accelerated change in the global climate have posed tremendous pressure on the water and sanitation. This calls all stakeholders, from both developed and developing nations, to improve their resilience and to instigate sustainability. It is more crucial than ever to optimise the use of the resources we have on hand since the world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

Alleged killing of another Bangladesh youth inside Indian territory: NHRC inquiry sought

By Kirity Roy* There was yet another incident of the killing of a Bangladeshi youth by the Border Security Force personnel attached with ‘Barthar’ BOP of ‘G’ Company of 75 BSF Battalion. In last five years several incidents of killings happened under this police station’s jurisdiction and the cases will get the award as “Not Guilty” as usual.

Modi model, Hindutva icon 'justified' alliance with Muslim League before Independence

By Shamsul Islam*  Our PM describes himself as ‘Hindu’ nationalist and member of RSS. He proudly shares the fact that he was groomed to be a political leader by one of the two fathers of the Hindutva politics, MS Golwalkar (the other being VD Savarkar) and given the task of establishing Hindutva polity in India after eradicating secularism.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Crusader for people’s causes, this Hollywood actor entered 'unexplored zones' in US

By Harsh Thakor*  Marlon Brando on April 3rd completes his birth centenary. He perished in 2004, on July 1, aged 80 years. Arguably in Hollywood Brando penetrated sensitivity and versatility at an unparalleled scale and discovered new horizons or explored path breaking zones in acting.

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Insider plot to kill Deendayal Upadhyay? What RSS pracharak Balraj Madhok said

By Shamsul Islam*  Balraj Madhok's died on May 2, 2016 ending an era of old guards of Hindutva politics. A senior RSS pracharak till his death was paid handsome tributes by the RSS leaders including PM Modi, himself a senior pracharak, for being a "stalwart leader of Jan Sangh. Balraj Madhok ji's ideological commitment was strong and clarity of thought immense. He was selflessly devoted to the nation and society. I had the good fortune of interacting with Balraj Madhok ji on many occasions". The RSS also issued a formal condolence message signed by the Supremo Mohan Bhagwat on behalf of all swayamsevaks, referring to his contribution of commitment to nation and society. He was a leading RSS pracharak on whom his organization relied for initiating prominent Hindutva projects. But today nobody in the RSS-BJP top hierarchy remembers/talks about Madhok as he was an insider chronicler of the immense degeneration which was spreading as an epidemic in the high echelons of th

India 'neglecting' air, water, vegetation as its world air quality index ranking decelerates

By Dr Gurinder Kaur* The World Air Quality Report 2023 , prepared by a Swiss technology company IQAir, was released on 19 March 2024. According to this report, India is the third most polluted country in the world after Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the capital of India, New Delhi, is the most polluted capital in the world.