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

Mystery around Gujarat PSU 'transfer' of Rs 250 crore to Canadian firm Karnalyte

By AK Luke, IAS (Retd)*
While returning from a Board meeting of the Oil India Limited (OIL) in Ahmedabad some time in 2012, two officers of the Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd (GSFC), Nanavaty and Patel,  saw me off at the airport. They said they were proceeding to Canada in connection with a project GSFC had entered into with a company there. As we were running late, I hastily wished them the best.

J&K continues to be haunted, as parts of India 'degenerate' into quasi-Kashmir situation

By Rajendran Narayanan*, Sandeep Pandey**
“Jab har saans mein bandook dikhe toh baccha kaise bekhauf rahe?” (How can a child be fearless when she sees a gun in every breath?) remarked Anwar, a gardener from Srinagar, when asked about the situation in Kashmir. On November 30, 2019, a walk through an iron gate in a quiet neighbourhood of Srinagar took us inside a public school. It was 11 am when typically every school is abuzz with activity. Not here though.

Indians have made 119 nations their ‘karma bhumi’: US-based Hindu NGO tells Rupani

Counterview Desk
In a stinging letter to Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, the US-based Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), referring to the report citing his justification for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – that “while Muslims can choose any one of the 150 Islamic countries in the world (for residence), India is the only country for Hindus" – has said, he should remember, Hindus have made several countries, including USA, their home.

Savarkar in Ahmedabad 'declared' two-nation theory in 1937, Jinnah followed 3 years later

By Our Representative
One of the top freedom fighters whom BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi revere the most, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was also a great supporter of the two nation theory for India, one for Hindus another for Muslims, claims a new expose on the man who is also known to be the original proponent of the concept of Hindutva.

Dalits rights meet planned on how citizenship law 'negates' Ambedkar's equality focus

By Our Representative
A Dalit rights meet has been planned at the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), Sanand, Ahmedabad district, to discuss implications of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by Parliament on December 10-11, for Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized sections. Announcing the decision, DSK director Martin Macwan said, the meet would take place on December 25, 2019, at 11.00 am, to commemorate the anniversary of burning of copies of Manusmriti by Dr BR Ambedkar.

What about religious persecution of Dalits, Adivasis, asks anti-CAA meet off Ahmedabad

By Rajiv Shah
A well-attended Dalit rights meet under the banner “14 Pe Charcha” (discussion on Article 14 of the Indian Constitution), alluding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi well-known campaign phrase of the 2014 Parliamentary elections, “chai pe charcha” (discussion over cup of tea), organized off Ahmedabad, has resolved on Wednesday to hold a 14 kilometres-long rally on April 14 to oppose the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), enacted on December 10-11.

Upendra Baxi on foolish excellence, Indian judges and Consitutional cockroaches

By Rajiv Shah
In a controversial assertion, top legal expert Upendra Baxi has sought to question India's Constitution makers for neglecting human rights and social justice. Addressing an elite audience in Ahmedabad, Prof Baxi said, the constitutional idea of India enunciated by the Constituent Assembly tried to resolve four key conflicting concepts: governance, development, rights and justice.

Population control? 10% Indian couples want to delay next pregnancy, but fail

Counterview Desk
Shireen Jejeebhoy, director at Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing, previously senior associate at the Population Council, India, argues that the debate on the country's population was fuelled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address to the nation, where he drew attention to “concern” about the challenges posed by this ‘exploding’ population growth, needs to centre around the promotion of rights and education, instead of the language of explosion and the threat of coercion that this term implies.

Kerala governor turned History Congress into political arena, 'insulted' Prof Irfan Habib

Counterview Desk
In a signed statement, office bearers of the Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology (ASHA), Prof Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi (president), Prof Jabir Raza (vice-president), Prof Manvendra Kumar Pundhir (secretary) and Prof Farhat Hasan (joint secretary), have said that Kerala governor Arif Mohammad Khan had sought to insult veteran historian Prof Irfan Habib, 88, at the 80th session of the Indian History Congress, even as turning it into his “political arena”.