More than a million devout Hindus every year dive at the chance to have a lifetime of sin washed away in holy water. According to The Wall Street Journal, it isn’t a clean and pure body of water they dive into — it's one of the most polluted rivers on Earth.
The intense pollution of the Ganges River doesn’t stop those who flock to Haridwar, India, seeking to gain access to a heavenly life after death. The river is heavily polluted with sewage and industrial waste. Funding shortages mean that only 31 percent of municipal sewage in India gets treated, according to the Central Pollution Control Board in New Delhi.
The remaining untreated sewage is discharged into the country’s rivers, ponds, land and seas. Not surprisingly, 500,000 of the 10.3 million deaths in India in 2004 were the result of waterborne disease.
Ironically, the spiritual waters of the Ganges are about to get some purification of their own. The Wall Street Journal reports, “The Indian government has embarked on a $4 billion campaign to ensure that by 2020, no untreated municipal sewage or industrial runoff enters the 1,560-mile river.”
Veer Bhadra Mishra, a 70-year-old priest and hydraulics engineer in Varanasi, the holy city downstream from Haridwar, has been leading the purification efforts. He plans to introduce a system that would divert sewage before it enters the river. His ideas were met with bureaucratic roadblocks in court, but Prime Minister Manmoham Singh is on Mishra’s side.
Last summer Mishra identified cleaning up the river as a national priority and increased funding to maintain current treatment facilities. He also approved Mishra’s plan and gave $184,000 to his organization to begin designing a new sewage treatment plan.
Mishra’s group is working with Berkeley, Calif.,-based GO2 Water Inc., a wastewater technology company. They plan to intercept 10.5 million gallons of sewage a day and divert it through a controlled series of ponds where sunlight, gravity, bacteria and microalgae will clean the water.
There is an urgent need for Mishra’s plan to go into effect as quickly as possible. A recent sampling of water from the Ganges discovered that each 100 milliliters of the water contains 29,000 fecal coliform bacteria. The maximum concentration considered safe for bathing in the holy river is 500 per 100 milliliters. “The pollution is at very, very dangerous level,” said Gopal Pandey, a lab technician for Sankat Mochan Foundation.