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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Snapping Turtles in the Ganges

Zed told me about this. India's River Ganges is polluted by innumerable sources along its length. Grotesquely, so many corpses are dumped into the very area where pilgrims drink and bathe in the holy waters that snapping turtles have been released into the river by the tens of thousands in hopes they will eat the corpses.

In 2004 a report by Dr. Sudhirendhar Sharma, a water expert attached to the Ecological Foundation in New Delhi, was published after a chapter of "Eco-Friends" fished 60 floating human corpses from a 10-kilometer stretch of the Ganges on the eve of a religious festival. Between 1997 and 2004 Eco-Friends had removed 1000 human corpses from that area. Extracts:
While inability to afford the cremation expenses accounts for one-third of the floating corpses, another one-third is entirely due to the strong belief that immersing the dead brings moksha or salvation. Ironically, the remaining one-third is composed of those unclaimed bodies that the police conveniently dump into the river.

Even the flesh-eating turtles released in the Ganga to munch the dead bodies have failed to make any significant impact. Released into a stretch of river at Varanasi in the late 1980s, poaching may have accounted for a better part of their promised appetite.

In 1992 a somewhat optimistic spin was put on the problem in an article called Ganga Ecology Getting Better After 8-year Effort: Treatment Plants and Turtles Lessen Pollution. Extracts:
The high country Ganga deep in the granite folds of the Himalayas still runs with its emerald color of purity and cleanliness. But down in the factory-laden and urbanized plains the Ganga runs brownish pea-green with silt and pollution: sewage, industrial waste and corpses.

Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra ... a professor of hydrologic engineering at Banares Hindu University and a priest at one of Benares' temples, performs his daily ablution in the Ganga dutifully, but not without squirming a bit at the river's foulness. Two of his disciples wade into the water before him, attempting to clear away foam and debris. ... He disputes the Ganga Directorate's figures of the river project's first-phase purity, and is demanding a new system of pollution evaluation.

North of Banares is another concern of Mishra's: new housing developments. Despite policing of the Ganga shoreline through Banares, dumping of waste still gushes in huge quantities. Banares is a city of 1 million with 1 million pilgrims bustling in each year. Of 655 million gallons of waste water produced every day, only 436 million gallons are treated.

Electric crematoriums [are] helping to reduce the half-burnt corpse problem. They do a complete job of burning, cost 10% of the wood-fueled pyre and are becoming extremely popular ...

In one of the most snappy and controversial efforts to rid the Ganga of partially cremated bodies (or whole bodies illegally dumped up stream), thousands of 3-foot long snapping turtles have been bred to devour the problem. Out of the original $140 million allocated for Ganga cleanup, $32 million alone have gone into turtle farms outside Banares.

There are about 20,000 to 30,000 bodies cremated in Banares every year and thousands more float in from up river.

Since 1990, 24,000 turtles have been released. The assistant manager of the farm says they are raised on a diet of dead fish from infancy, conditioning them to go for rotten flesh in the river, but not for living bodies. When people bring a body in a bag, the turtles charge up to the shore and sometimes drag the bag off. No bitings have been reported. But there are still corpses daily floating on by.

While some Hindu scientists are combating Ganga pollution, others are examining the river's baffling antiseptic properties. At the Malaria Research Center in New Delhi the Ganga water from its upper reaches didn't host mosquito breeding, and prevented breeding in any water it was added to. Water from other sacred rivers was soon filmed over with mosquito eggs.

Other research demonstrated that cholera germs die within hours of immersion in Ganga water. The Ganga water has an extraordinarily high rate of oxygen retention, allowing it to remain fresh during long storage periods. Other studies indicate that pathological bacteria do not fare well in Ganga water. Some scientists conjecture this is due to naturally radioactive minerals present in the water, and organisms that kill germs.

Finally, extracts from a 1996 report by Payal Sampat for World Watch:
The [Ganges] symbolizes purification to millions of Hindus the world over, who believe that drinking or bathing in its waters will lead to moksha, or salvation.

According to ... environmental engineer D.S. Bhargava ... the Ganges decomposes organic waste 15 to 25 times faster than other rivers. ... This finding has never been fully explained.

A map of South Asia reveals an intricate web of tributaries that flow into and branch out of the Ganges. Through this web, four of the world's most densely populated nations - China, Nepal, Bangladesh, and India - empty their waters and wastes into the Ganges each day, adding to the load that comes directly from the region's residents.

Municipal sewage constitutes 80 per cent by volume of the total waste dumped into the Ganges, and industries contribute about 15 percent ... only a handful of towns process their waste at all.

To the raw sewage and factory effluents are added the runoff from more than 6 million tons of chemical fertilizers and some 9,000 tons of pesticides.

And finally, the Ganges becomes the last resting place for thousands of dead Hindus, whose cremated ashes or half-burnt corpses are put into the river for spiritual rebirth.

In southern Nepal and the Garhwal hills of India, developers clearing forests and building roads to meet the needs of tourists add to the already heavy natural erosion. By the time the Ganges reaches its mouth, it will have picked up 340 million tons of sediment each year.

Watered by the monsoons, this silt-enriched land produces a significant portion of the rice, wheat, millet, sugar, and barley needed to feed the world's second most populous nation. The rain feds the land, dilutes the river's muddy stream, flushes out excess sediment and suspended matter, and revitalizes the river where its flow was sluggish. The Ganges can swell a thousand-fold during the monsoons. This force brings destruction further downstream in the Indo-Bangladesh delta, where increasing development has shorn the coast of its flood-buffering mangrove forests.

It is at Rishikesh that the defilement begins, as raw sewage is dumped into the river along with hydrochloric acid, acetone, and other effluents from large pharmaceutical companies, and heavy metals and chlorinated solvents from electronics plants. The electronics industry, like any other that uses heavy machinery, consumes large amounts of hydraulic fluid and heat transfer fluids that contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are highly toxic compounds that concentrate in the higher links of the food-chain and are resistant to breakdown, and accumulate in the environment and body tissues.

Perhaps the worst assaults occur at the city of Kanpur, where the hides of horses, goats, and cattle are brought to factories for tanning. Some 80 tanneries operate here, consuming and discharging large quantities of water as skins go through an extensive chemical treatment ... chromium lends a greenish hue to the drinking water the city draws from the river. Organic wastes - hair, flesh, and other animal remains - are thrown into the river, giving it a fetid stench ... they mingle with the effluents of some 70 other industrial plants - mainly sugar factories - that disgorge a thick molasses-like substance, and textile companies that throw in various bleaches, dyes, and acids. Kanpur also contributes to the river about 400 million liters of sewage each day.

Runoff that carries soil back into the river also carries farm chemicals. Organochlorine pesticides, such as aldrin, benzene hexachloride, and DDT (banned in the United States for its dangers to human and environmental health) are used extensively in the basin.

Farms in these plains consume 35 percent of the fertilizer used in India, and the large quantities that wash off into the Ganges promote the growth of algal blooms and phytoplankon...

About 150 kilometers east of Allahabad, the Ganges reaches Varanasi, the place most associated with the river by its devotees. ... Its antiquated septic system does little more than pipe raw sewage into the river. Varanasi is also where large quantities of crematory ash, along with thousands of dead bodies, are immersed in the river by the devout.

At the same time, multitudes of pilgrims come to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges and drink its water, convinced of its purifying qualities - and undissuaded by the fact that coliform bacteria levels here far exceed the limits considered safe.

Not surprisingly, water-related ailments like amoebic dysentery, gastro-enteritis, tape-worm infestations, typhoid, cholera, and viral hepatitis are extremely common ... One person in the region dies of diarrhea every minute, and eight of every 10 people in Calcutta suffer from amoebic dysentery each year.

Its final inputs downstream from Varanasi are the by-products of a diesel works, coal yards, and a number of distilleries and sugar factories. The last two are among the worst degraders of dissolved oxygen, as they discharge huge quantities of organic wastes; they also consume large supplies of water.

Further downstream, the large oil refinery at Barauni is notorious for piping huge amounts of oily sludge into the river. Ten years ago at this location, a two kilometer stretch of the river caught fire and burned for 16 hours. [Burning for 16 hours? That beats the Cuyahoga River Fire for sure.]

Fossil fuel burning produces polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), known carcinogens which have low water solubility. Instead of flushing out, therefore, the PAHs lodge in sediments - which the Ganges carries in abundance - and settle to the bottom, where they accumulate in aquatic life.

A short distance downstream from Barauni, at the point where the Bata shoe factory dumps its waste, water quality has deteriorated so badly that fish put in the water here in the early 1980s survived only 48 hours, according to a report by the Center for Science and the Environment in New Delhi. A little further on, at the McDowell distillery's mixing zone, fish could survive only five hours.

About 150 large industrial plants are lined up on the banks of the Hooghly at Calcutta. Together, these plants contribute 30 percent of the total industrial effluent reaching the mouths of the Ganges. Of this, half comes from pulp and paper industries, which discharge a dark brown, oxygen-craving slurry of bark and wood fiber, mercury and other heavy metals which accumulate in fish tissues, and chemical toxins like bleaches and dyes, which produce dioxin and other persistent compounds. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a standard for suspended solids at 100 particles per liter of water, but the count in the Hooghly is over 6,000. Much of this consists of oily effluents from the port, where ships empty their bilge.

The population of the basin is projected to reach almost a billion people in the next generation - more than the population of the entire world at the beginning of the 19th century.

Nearly 70 percent of India's available water is polluted. Waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera are responsible for 80 percent of all health problems and one-third of all deaths in India ... Only 7 percent of India's 3,000 cities have any kind of sewage treatment facilities.

The link between the river's health and that of the region it sustains has been given short shrift by policymakers. In 1985, the Indian government launched an Action Plan to clean the river, but it failed abjectly - due to pervasive corruption, mismanagement, and technological bungling - and was duly abandoned. Under the plan, a number of waste treatment plants were built, but virtually none of them remain functioning today.

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At 6:32 PM, Blogger kenju said...

Maybe they should release some piranha too.

At 6:47 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

The Man and I went to Varanasi a few years ago, but arrived to find the entire city centre cordoned off due to a curfew. There had been rioting a few days earlier, apparently, and people had been killed. We had a dramatic time there (long story!), but didn't get to see the Ganges.

After reading this I'm not feeling quite as disappointed about missing it.


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