VARANASI — We slip into the river at night, and with an easy stroke, our oarsman moves our boat across the chestnut waters of “Mother Ganga,” India’s Ganges River.
Spiritual life in Varanasi (also called Benares) is a passion. Hindus all over India save their money for the chance to visit this holy city and bathe in Ganga’s purifying waters. At sunrise, along the string of bathing steps called “ghats,” you’ll see hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes soaping up in the water, praying, laughing and chatting, or just bobbing along. At the so-called “burning ghats,” open-air cremations take place twenty-four hours a day in quiet ceremonies attended by family and curious onlookers. But this evening, my family and another, visiting from Maharashtra, are on our way to watch the Ganga Aarti, a Hindu ceremony of music and prayer devoted to Mother Ganga. The ceremony is ancient. But it takes on new power when you consider that today the Ganges is all but an environmental disaster—a septic river, riddled with industrial poisons and now threatened by climate change. If Mother Ganga were human, she would be in the I.C.U.
From the boat, we watch the temple priests lined up on the ghat, swinging brass lamps with smoky incense. A chorus sings while bells and tabla drums repeat in a lazy, Brian-Eno-style sound loop. I ask one of the family members from Maharashtra (an adult son) what’s going on. “They are giving praise to Saraswati,” he says, “the goddess of knowledge.”
On the subject of knowledge, we do know what goes into river Ganges, and we know that much of it, from organic matter to toxins, is not good. The river, of course, has absorbed the remains of the dead for centuries. The boatman tells me this and more, gesturing toward the water with just a hint of rehearsal: “Ashes from cremation, they go there. Bodies of animal, cow and buffalo, they go there. Bodies of special persons, they are tied to rock with string, and they go there, sadu holy man, leper, child under two years old, pregnant lady, man bitten by cobra, all are there.”
But the more potent, though less romantic, organic pollutant is raw sewage, which flows down miles of tributaries and canals, sending Mother Ganga’s fecal coliform levels through the roof. In a country where 80% of health problems are related to water-borne illness, that’s devastating. Then there are industrial pollutants like mercury, lead, and PCBs, which are routinely discharged from the thousands of small factories along the riverbanks. Abutting croplands leak pesticides and toxic fertilizers too.
These water quality problems are now amplified by a severe decline in water quantity. Mechanical diversions of water for irrigation, drinking water, and power generation limit stream flow and thus increase the concentration of water-borne pollution. And the headwater glaciers that feed the Ganges river network are retreating rapidly because of climate change. The full effect of global warming on the Ganges is crucial but little understood. It will be the wild card in all future river management efforts.
The Indian government, spurred by citizen activists, has been fighting the river’s problems for years. But the resulting initiative, known as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), is too expensive and depressingly ineffective. GAP promised an array of new sewage plants, tough water quality standards, and hard-nosed enforcement. But many treatment facilities were never built; and those that were suffered from shoddy construction, poor maintenance, and inadequate power supplies. Pesticides and industrial toxins were never addressed. And restricting diversions to maintain water flow has become political poison.
Here at the aarti ceremony, the clouds of smoke have transformed into small balls of fire and (my boat mate tells me) the singers are now praising Shiva, the Destroyer. I dip my hand into the water. It really is pleasant—warm and soft with a light slippery feel. I ask the boatman whether he thinks the water is clean. Yes, yes, he insists. It’s brown, like chai tea, but that is the mud. And after the monsoon the silt settles down. In fact, he insists, the mud actually neutralizes the river’s harmful impurities. He reminds me of the human ashes, the expired livestock, the anchored bodies of lost children. “Smell,” he says, “just smell.” He draws a deep breath. “You see? No smell is there. That is Mother Ganga.”
For me, the Ganges experience encapsulates three points. First, in the developing world, climate adaptation will always be just a part of much more obvious and immediate environmental problems. Global warming is already shrinking the Ganges’ output and threatening future water supplies for millions living in the Ganges basin. But the lesser flow is already compromising the water quality for people who use it today. In adapting to climate change, policy makers are properly more concerned with addressing the immediate health and cultural needs of the public. But when they do that, they must consider climate.
Second, getting adaptation right requires top-notch climate projections and technical assistance. The government’s Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology is on the cutting edge of climate science, but its data are not always easily accessible to policy makers and in some cases unavailable to ordinary citizens. This needs to change.
Third, in a bureaucracy as big and unwieldy as India’s the government’s feet must be held to the fire. It takes an informed and impassioned citizenry to make sure that project money is not wasted and that health standards get enforced. It’s crucial that the everyday person understand not just what climate change or water pollution is, but what it does and how it harms.
Which brings me back to Saraswati, champion of knowledge. Always the favorite of exam-taking students, Saraswati is, herself, a former river goddess, often seen perched atop a paddling swan. But what I like most are her four strong arms, signifying intellect, sentience, alertness, and ego. Because, really, there is a lot of work to be done.