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Healing waters: India's Ganges River cleanses itself during virus shutdown

Plastic waste is seen along the Yamuna with the famous Taj Mahal in the background, in Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. (Mainichi/Khalil Hashmi)

NEW DELHI (Mainichi) -- The number of COVID-19 cases in India has topped 33,000 as of April 30, while the total death toll in the country has surpassed 1,000, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. It's difficult for Indians under the poverty line or in the middle class to sustain their livelihoods due to lack of food and money, but there is not all bad news in this pandemic. The Ganges River, the second largest emitter of plastics in the marine environment globally, with an estimated contribution of 0.12 million tons per year, is showing significant signs of improved health.

According to real-time water monitoring data of India's Central Pollution Control Board, out of the 36 monitoring units placed at various points along the Ganges River, the water quality around 27 points was suitable for bathing and the propagation of wildlife and fisheries.

United Nations environment program volunteers scrutinize plastic samples from the Yamuna, a tributary river of the Ganges, in Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. (Mainichi/Khalil Hashmi)

India's most worshipped river travels almost 2,525 kilometers from its origin in the Himalayas. Five Indian states along with neighboring Bangladesh surround its heart. Almost 625 million people live in the Ganges River basin. This river has been noted as a goddess in Hindu text with references to the remarkable healing power of its water. Hindu devotees believe that taking a bath in the revered river will free them from sins and sprinkling the ashes of a deceased loved one in the waterway can help the soul rest in peace.

"Save Ganga," a leading activist group working to clean the Ganges River, believes that Mother Nature is punishing humans to teach them to respect life. Founder of the Save Ganga movement, 63-year-old Mrs. Rama Rauta, told the Mainichi, "Mother Earth is healing itself. According to our experts, the Ganges is now 80% clean, the best she has been in the last century. We are struggling to save the Ganges from human exploitation due to large amounts of mining for sand and other minerals, and the dumping of city and industrial waste into the river. But now I am happy to see a clean Ganges, at least once in my life, though I fear that it is temporary. No industry waste is coming into the Ganges, no religious activities such as the dumping of idols or ashes of dead bodies or holy baths are going on. But as we return to normalcy, all these activities will begin again and the river will be polluted once more. The Ganges is paying for being a holy river and religious beliefs are killing it. I think our future generations will curse us for polluting this river and now is a chance where Mother Earth is telling us it would be better to restrict our activities."

A dry river filled with garbage is seen in Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in February 2020. (Mainichi/Khalil Hashmi)

An estimated 11,625 tons of solid waste is generated in cities lying along the Ganges River and its tributary the Yamuna River. Along with nine other rivers of the world, these waterways account for almost 90% of all plastics that end up in the world's oceans. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with financial support from the Japanese government, is conducting a study on the Ganges and its tributaries to take realistic action against marine plastic litter. According to UNEP spokesperson Saloni Goel, "The UNEP's work on the Ganges shall compliment ongoing government projects to clean the Ganges by providing scientific evidence-based inputs for understanding points of origin, pathways of leakage, and the eventual discharge of plastics in the Ganges River and eventually into the ocean. The project is financially backed by the Japanese government and is engaged with multiple and diverse stakeholders to understand their perceptions on the subject and identify priority areas of action."

Polluted river water is not only a risk to public health, but it also poses a danger to the life and health of animals, plants and aquatic organisms. It can impact vegetation and crops as a carrier of pollutants like metals, pesticides, nitrates and nitrites. These can impact the quality and productivity of crops, and finally the health of humans consuming the crops.

Dr. Mahua Saha, center, and her team collect water samples from the Yamuna in Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. (Mainichi/Khalil Hashmi)

"Pollutants in river water also find a way into our food cycle through animals that may directly consume river water, or vegetation grown with the help of river water," added Ghoel.

Dr. Mahua Saha, a senior scientist with the National Institute of Oceanography, took water samples from the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges, in Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh just a week before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the state in the last week of February. She told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The condition of the water is very serious and not drinkable. It's not even fit to take a bath as there are too many microplastics and other chemicals in it, which are causing harm to the whole ecosystem of the river. Many kinds of fish and aquatic plants have already vanished from this river. The chances of cancer and birth defects are higher for people drinking its water and eating fish or vegetables from this river. Using these samples, we will be able to establish more facts about the contents and their impact."

Dr. Mahua Saha holds a water sample. (Mainichi/Khalil Hashmi)

"Chintan," an environmental research and action group that conducts awareness campaigns on clean rivers, sees the coronavirus shutdown as an opportunity for people and governments to keep the Ganges River clean for the future.

Chitra Mukherjee, head of advocacy and policy at Chintan, told the Mainichi, "This lockdown has proved that we are the polluting factor. The Ganges is cleaner than ever now. We have to strictly maintain this level as it looks like nature is taking revenge on us, so we should learn a lesson and stop polluting the river. This is an unnatural condition where thanks to the lockdown, people are not polluting the river. But if we return to our normal ways, we will again start polluting the river. I believe awareness and behavioral change is the only way to keep our rivers clean. We have to minimize the use of plastics if we want to save our eco system."

The constant lockdown has curbed the spread of the deadly COVID-19, but also exposed the poor capacity of the Indian health sector in front of its huge population. Indian religions have specific prayer rituals for rivers and forests. Many Indian experts are hopeful that after this crisis, there is a good chance that there will be a visible change in the consciousness of people toward rivers and forests. But there are also fears that nature could take such strong action again if it needs to revive itself.

Garbage is seen alongside a river in Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. (Mainichi/Khalil Hashmi)

(By Khalil Hashmi, Mainichi New Delhi Bureau)

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