“The Grace of Mother Ganga – Provider for All”, The Pioneer
Mother Ganga irrigates not only the hearts, minds and souls of Her one billion devotees around the world. She also irrigates the farms that feed more than one-third of India’s population. More than 450 million people receive the means for their very existence from Her waters. The Ganga Basin supports the greatest population density on Earth—it is home to more than one-twelfth of the world’s population. Ganga is the water they drink, and with which they bathe, cook and irrigate their crops. She is both the apple of their eye and the apple on their tree. Her irrigation canals span approximately 18,000 kilometers, network of channels running as the arteries of life for one-third of India. Yet, today, tragically, the waters of Mother Ganga are in peril, and the peril is borne not by Her alone but rather by all whose lives are inextricably linked with Hers as She journeys 2,500 km from Gaumukh to Ganga Sagar.
To devotees, of course, the Ganga will be eternally pure, the timeless, un-taintable essence of fullness, purity and divinity. In essence, they are right. Ganga is, according to Indian spiritual history, actually a Goddess who simply descended upon the Earth due to the ardent and assiduous tapasya of King Bhagirath, a descendant of King Sagara whose 60,000 sons had been burnt to ash by Sage Kapil. She flowed over the ashes of King Sagara’s sons, bringing them liberation or moksha. That She stayed, that She continued to flow long after Her specific task was complete, that She has cleansed, purified and liberated countless billions since then is a sign of Her grace.
So, in essence, Ganga is un-defilable. As Lord Krishna describes the soul in the Bhagavad Gita, saying, “it cannot be dried by wind, nor burnt by fire nor cut with a knife,” similarly there is nothing that can be done to Ganga which will change Her essence. So, many argue, what is the problem with a few bags of garbage or a sewage line or two? This question is the point upon which Her role as a spiritual lifeline and as a physical lifeline diverge. For, while Her essence—in any physical state—is enough to bring liberation to the devoted, it is the very physical, tangible and currently sullied molecules of H2O which bring life to hundreds of millions. A few bags of garbage or errant sewage pipes may have no impact on moksha for the faithful bathing in Her waters, but it can be the difference between life and death for the inhabitants of Her basin.
The volume of waste dumped into Her waters is staggering. 1.3 billion liters of wastewater from domestic and industrial sources are dumped directly into Ganga each day. The raw sewage of more than one hundred cities flows directly into Her running waters. This is only the liquid waste—the untreated sewage, agricultural run-off and chemical effluents from factories. The solid waste, the actual trash which individuals and municipalities toss into Her stream each day is immeasurable.
GLOBAL WATER ISSUES
Each day in their morning bath, Indians across the world invoke the names of the holy rivers:
Gange ca Yamune caiva Godaavari Sarasvati
Narmade Sindhu Kaaveri jalasmin sannidhim kuru
O Holy Mother Ganga! Yamuna! O Godavari! Sarasvati!
O Narmada! Sindhu! Kaveri!
May you all be pleased to manifest in these waters (with which I purify myself).
Whatever may be the actual source of water pouring out of their shower head, it is all, on a fundamental level, a manifestation and extension of the sacred rivers. This is not an idle prayer of a people without scientific understanding of the biological uniqueness of each river, lake, reservoir and ocean. Rather it is a deep acknowledgement of the fact that, in the words of Chief Seattle:
Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together. All things connect.
The specific challenges faced by the hundreds of millions of Indians living in the Ganga Basin across the five states through which She flows may be unique. However, the deeper, fundamental issues are not. Tragically they are global. Each day, approximately 4000 children die from waterborne illnesses and more people die annually from water-related issues than from all forms of violence combined—including individual assault and murder as well as organized crime and war.
By 2025, according to UN estimates, nearly two billion people will be living in an area of “absolute water scarcity” and two-thirds of the world’s population may be living in “water stressed conditions.”
“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one. Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” — Jacques Cousteau, Oceanographer.
Global water-related issues are deeper than a critically worsening shortage. Not only are we running out of water to provide for the exploding population, but we are simultaneously turning our limited water supply into poison. Every day, two million tons of sewage and other effluents drain into the world’s water bodies. As countries develop, they produce more and consume more. An inevitable and inextricable part of production is waste. This is especially true in developing nations where the rise in production rates is rarely matched by a rise in waste treatment facilities. Factories begin to line the sides of highways and coat the air with soot. Shopping malls appear on the corners of cities. Yet, the development of efficient and adequate waste management programs frequently lags far behind. In India, as in most developing nations, there is a direct, linear relationship between the volume of goods produced by a factory and the volume of waste cast by that factory into local rivers, lakes and groundwater or spewed into the air. According to United Nations’ reports, in developing countries seventy percent of industrial waste is dumped untreated into water bodies, thereby rendering the water supply unusable. As developing nations rush exuberantly toward unbridled consumerism, they must be prepared for a rapid devastation of the air and water quality.
Whichever country one may examine, whatever type of water body one may study, the facts are grim and grave. Developing nations and developed nations alike are suffering critically due to insufficient clean, pure, toxin-free water. In some places the problem is sheer lack of water itself. In other places the problem is that which has been dumped into the water. Inhabitants of the Great Lakes area, as well as the San Francisco Bay area, both upscale sections of the United States, have been stringently warned against eating fish from their local water bodies. Levels of mercury, PCBs and other lethal toxins have been found at exorbitant rates in the lakes, the Bay and even in the Hudson River of New York. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States found that women who ate fish even just twice a week had blood mercury concentrations seven times higher than women who hadn’t eaten fish in the previous month. Studies have also shown that a 140-pound woman will have thirty percent more mercury in her blood than the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe, simply by eating one small can of white tuna fish every week.