Most ancient civilizations grew along the banks of rivers. Even today, millions of people all over the world live on the banks of rivers and depend on them for their survival. All of us have seen a river - large or small, either flowing through our town, or somewhere else. Rivers are nothing more than surface water flowing down from a higher altitude to a lower altitude due to the pull of gravity. One river might have its source in a glacier, another in a spring or a lake. Rivers carry dissolved minerals, organic compounds, small grains of sand, gravel, and other material as they flow downstream. Rivers begin as small streams, which grow wider as smaller streams and rivers join them along their course across the land. Eventually they flow into seas or oceans. Unfortunately most of the world's major rivers are heavily polluted.
The pollution of environment is the ‘gift’ of the industrial revolution. Prior to this the agrarian cultures created significant environmental deterioration in the form of soil erosion- through deforestation and overgrazing. The environmental degradation is a by product of modern civilization.
There has been a steady deterioration in the quality of water of Indian rivers over several decades. India’s fourteen major, 55 minor and several hundred small rivers receive millions of litres of sewage, industrial and agricultural wastes. Most of these rivers have been rendered to the level of sewage flowing drains. There are serious water quality problems in the cities, towns and villages using these waters. Water borne diseases are rampant, fisheries are on decline, and even cattle are not spared from the onslaught of pollution.
With growing civilization and population all over how long Ganga will retain its self purification characteristics only time can judge.
The Gangotri Glacier, a vast expanse of ice five miles by fifteen, at the foothills of the Himalayas (14000 ft) in North Uttar Pradesh is the source of Bhagirathi, which joins with Alaknanda (origins nearby) to form Ganga at the craggy canyon-carved town of Devprayag. Interestingly, the sources of Indus and the Brahmaputra are also geographically fairly close; the former goes through Himachal Pradesh and fans out through Punjab and Sind (Pakistan) into the Arabian Sea. The latter courses for most of its tremendous length under various names through Tibet/China, never far from the Nepal or Indian borders, and then takes a sharp turn near the northeastern tip of India, gathers momentum through Assam before joining the major stream of the Ganga near Dacca in Bangladesh to become the mighty Padma, river of joy and sorrow for much of Bangladesh. From Devprayag to the Bay of Bengal and the vast Sunderbans delta, the Ganga flows some 1550 miles, passing (and giving life to) some of the most populous cities of India, including Kanpur (2 million), Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, and Calcutta (14 million).
The largest tributary to the Ganga is the Ghaghara, which meets it before Patna, in Bihar, bearing much of the Himalayan glacier melt from Northern Nepal. The Gandak, which comes from near Katmandu, is another big Himalayan tributary. Other important rivers that merge with the Ganga are the Son, which originates in the hills of Madhya Pradesh, the Gomti which flows past Lucknow.
A number of investigations have been carried out on the physiochemical and biological characters of the Ganga. Lakshminarayana (1965) published a series of papers reporting the results of studies carried out at Varanasi during the period between March, 1957 and March, 1958. it was observed by him that the values of the most of the parameters decreased during rainy season while no marked variation was observed during winters and summers.
According to the report published in a book by Mr. U.K. Sinha (1986), the concentration of iron is higher in sediments collected from 10 metres along the bank at Mandiri region. The concentration of all the toxic metals i.e copper, zinc, nickel and cobalt are higher in all the sediments collected from near the storm drain and diminishes towards mid-region of the river. The concentration of zinc is highest in the sediments collected from near the Mandiri storm drain, Antaghat storm drain and Krishnaghat storm drain.
For some time now, this romantic view of the Ganges has collided with India's grim realities. During the past three decades, the country's explosive growth (at nearly 1.2 billion people, India's population is second only to China's), industrialization and rapid urbanization have put unyielding pressure on the sacred stream.
Ganga, the most sacred of rivers for Hindus, has become polluted for some years now. But a recent study by Uttarakhand Environment Conservation and Pollution Control Board says that the level of pollution in the holy river has reached alarming proportions.
Things have come to such a pass that the Ganga water is at present not fit just for drinking and bathing but has become unusable even for agricultural purposes.
As per the UECPCB study, while the level of coliform present in water should be below 50 for drinking purposes, less than 500 for bathing and below 5000 for agricultural use—the present level of coliform in Ganga at Haridwar has reached 5500.
Based on the level of coliform, dissolved oxygen and biochemical oxygen, the study put the water in A, B, C and D categories. While A category is considered fit for drinking, B for bathing, C for agriculture and D is for excessive pollution level.
Since the Ganga waters at Haridwar have more than 5000 coliform and even the level of dissolved oxygen and biochemical oxygen doesn't conform the prescribed standards, it has been put in the D category.
According to the study, the main cause of high level of coliform in Ganga is due to disposal of human faeces, urine and sewage directly into the river from its starting point in Gaumukh till it reaches Haridwar via Rishikesh.
Nearly 89 million litres of sewage is daily disposed into Ganga from the 12 municipal towns that fall along its route till Haridwar. The amount of sewage disposed into the river increases during the Char Dham Yatra season when nearly 15 lakh pilgrims visit the state between May and October each year.
Apart from sewage disposal of half-burnt human bodies at Haridwar and hazardous medical waste from the base hospital at Srinagar due to absence of an incinerator are also adding to pollution levels in the Ganga.
The result has been the gradual killing of one of India's most treasured resources. One stretch of the Yamuna River, the Ganges' main tributary, has been devoid of all aquatic creatures for at least a decade.
In Varanasi, India's most sacred city, the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by the United Nations world Health Organization. Coliform are rod-shaped bacteria that are normally found in the colons of humans and animals and become a serious contaminant when found in the food or water supply.
A study by Environmental Biology Laboratory, Department pf Zoology, Patna University, showed the presence of mercury in the Ganga river in Varanasi city. According to the study, annual mean concentration of mercury in the river water was 0.00023 ppm. The concentration ranged from NT (not traceable) to 0.00191 ppm.
Study done by Indian Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow during 1986-1992 showed maximum annual concentration of mercury in the Ganga river water at Rishikesh, Allahabad district and Dakshineswar as 0.081, 0.043 and 0.012 ppb respectively.
Ganga river at Varanasi was found well within the maximum permissible standard of 0.001 ppm prescribed for drinking water by the World Health Organization.
The mercury studied in the Ganga river could be traced in biotic as well as abiotic components of the river at the study site. The Hindu devotees take bath in the river where mercury was detected in 28%, 44%,75%, 96%, 42% and 89% of the river water, sediment, benthic fauna, fish, soil and vegetation samples respectively.
Though mercury contamination of the river water has not reached an alarming extent, its presence in the river system is worrisome. In the study annual mean concentration of the metal in the sediments was 0.067 ppm. Sediments constitute a major pool of mercury in fresh water.
As Ganga enters the Varanasi city, Hinduism’s sacred river contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres, 120 times more than is considered safe for bathing. Four miles downstream, with inputs from 24 gushing sewers and 60,000 pilgrim-bathers, the concentration is 3,000 times over the safety limit. In places, the Ganges becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by.
The tannery industry mushrooming in North India has converted the Ganga River into a dumping ground. The tanning industry discharges different types of waste into the environment, primarily in the form of liquid effluents containing organic matters, chromium, sulphide ammonium and other salts. As per an estimate, about 80-90% of the tanneries use chromium as a tanning agent. Of this, the hides take up only 50-70%, while the rest is discharged as effluent. Pollution becomes acute when tanneries are concentrated in clusters in small area like Kanpur. Consequently, the Leather-tanning sector is included in the Red category of industries due to the potential adverse environmental impact caused by tannery wastes.
Highly polluted sediments are adversely affecting the ecological functioning of rivers due to heavy metal mobilization from urban areas into biosphere. Distribution of heavy metals in sediments of the river Ganga and its tributaries have been carried out by several workers. Monitoring of Ganga River from Rishikesh to Varanasi indicated that Kannauj to Kanpur and Varanasi are the most polluted stretches of the river Ganga . Analysis of upstream and down stream water and sediment revealed a 10-fold increase in chromium level.
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Chandra, K. 1981. Pollution from wastes of industries manufacturing nitrogenous fertilizer. A case study from river Ganga near Allahabad. In Proc. Symp. W.R.C.P.A. Roorkee 11-23 Dec. 141-151
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