Gangotri town by the side of Bhagirathi river, the origin of the River Ganges and seat of the goddess Ganga Image: Mrinalpal / Shutterstock.com
From her birth place Gangotri, where the goddess Ganga descended from a lock of Shiva’s hair over 10,000 feet high in the Himalayas, the River Bhagirathi flows rapidly to join with the Alaknanda and becomes Ganga mata at Devprayag. She merges with other rivers, swells with melted ice and monsoon rain along her way, through valleys and flat plains to the Bay of Bengal over 2,500 kilometers away.
Spiritual guru Sadhguru “Yogi, Mystic, Visionary” and Founder of the Isha Foundation tweeted in May 2018 to his 4 million followers: “Ganga isn't just a river. She is like our mother.”
The Ganga is an abundant source of life to more than 40 percent of Indians who depend on her throughout her length across Northern India. However, in recent years the Ganga and other rivers in India face a serious and even existential threat from pollution, dams, construction, sand mining and other human activities. Their degradation impacts all those people and species that depend on them for their existence.
Of the eight major Indian river systems, the Ganga is the largest. We consider Ganga jal pure, even magical in healing and many holy cities are placed along her life-giving banks. People flock to these cities to pay homage.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to Parliament in May 2014 from the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the River Ganga, he said, “It’s my destiny to serve Maa Ganga.“
Other Indian river systems are revered too. The Godavari river is the ‘Dakshina Ganga’ or ‘River of the South’. She originates in the Western Ghats and flows across the country to the East, supporting her own distinct indigenous life forms along her way. Other Indian rivers are also steeped in mythology and support myriad species.
The first great human civilisations are charted along the world’s river banks. The Mesopotamian Civilisation took root along the River Tigris in 4000-3500 BC; Ancient Egypt along the Nile in 3100 BC, the Indus Valley Civilisation on the Indus River in 3300 BC. These earliest ‘cradles of civilisation’, each of which formed independently of others, were all placed along rivers: A natural choice for human civilisation to flourish as they provided food and water, facilitated transport and trade.
With their abundance, it is little wonder so many modern cities across the world developed and grew along rivers too. Even today, in the Anthropocene Age, which began with Industrialisation in the 1800s, cities on river banks continue to thrive. Some imperatives, continuous from antiquity, remain the bedrock of our human civilisation: Water is one such imperative.
The recently concluded World Water Week in September 2022 in Stockholm concluded that “water needs to be at the top of the global agenda”. Their report added, “We need a new relationship with nature, where water is viewed holistically, and the connection between land-based, freshwater, and marine ecosystems is recognised.”
Also read: International Day of Biological Diversity 2022: Not all urban greenery is created equal
Nevertheless, rivers and the species that inhabit them are under increasingly dire threat, from the mountains where they originate; throughout their length, often on flat lands; to the coasts where they disperse into the seas to merge with marine ecosystems.
Despite national strategies like the ‘Ganga Action Plan’ which was launched 28 years ago in 1985, and the High Court of Uttarakhand’s order to declare the Ganga a “legal person” in 2017, the Ganga remains highly polluted as does the Godavari and India’s other more than 400 rivers. Numerous dams and sand mining block the free flow of water; haphazard infrastructure construction, industrial effluents and noise pollution alter riverine habitats and hinder the river’s ability to support healthy populations of rare and valuable species.The in -between habitats where sweet-water rivers mingle with the salt sea produce especially prized fish, like the ‘hilsa’ fish found in delta of the Ganga
“Little drops of water/ Little grains of sand/ Make the mighty ocean/ And the pleasant land,” says a children’s song, popular since its first publication in 1854.
Within the in-between habitats where sweet water rivers mingle with the salt sea live especially prized fish. These include the hilsa fish beloved of Bengali cuisine and found in the Ganga delta and, at the other end of the country, the karimeen in the backwaters of Kerala.
On painted pottery found in the ancient Harappan civilisation along the Indus River, the mahseer was singled out from other fish as ‘God’s fish’. In British India, mahseer were also a favourite game fish prized by Englishmen as the best fighting fish in the world. Today, the prized golden mahseer is listed as ‘endangered’.
Bivash Pandav, director, Bombay Natural History Society (India), who has extensively researched the upper reaches of the Ganga between Rishikesh and Dev Prayag, tells me that this small area in Uttarakhand “supports some of the last remaining breeding populations of golden mahseer at the confluence of the Nayar river with Ganga. During the monsoon, mahseer move away from the Ganga and upstream of Nayar river for spawning, a phenomenon that is increasingly getting disrupted due to constructions of dams and barrages along river systems”.
India is the world’s second largest fish producer and freshwater fish form 55 percent of India’s fisheries. Some non-edible varieties too are prized for their stunning beauty. Fish are the commonest pet in the world. Freshwater fish form 51 percent of the world’s known fish and are coveted for aquariums around the world where we recreate waving plants and coloured rocks, where fish with streaming tail fins promote calmness and well-being.
Ongoing research in the Western Ghats continues to reveal new species that inhabit the three major rivers and hundreds of smaller ones which originate in this World Biodiversity Hotspot. In May 2020, a study led by Unmesh Katwane, a PhD student of the BNHS, discovered three new species of ornamental fish, brilliantly coloured filament barbs, in high demand for aquariums.
All these species are threatened when their habitats change and degrade. Even the under-recognised pollutant of noise contributes to degradation. Fish and other riverine species communicate with sound more than is previously known and studies indicate that their mating and parenting patterns are severely disrupted with noise exposure. In July 2022, Dr Inger Andersen, executive director of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) named noise as “a threat to animals, altering communications and the behaviour of various species, including birds, insects, and frogs”.
Mammals including dolphins, an intelligent species that has been recognised as “non-human persons” in some parts of the world because of their intelligent self-awareness, also communicate with ‘speech’ which is carried underwater and is disrupted by noise. In the last 15 years, the once abundant Ganges River Dolphin, India’s national aquatic animal and one of only five true freshwater dolphins in the world, has become an endangered species. Also read: World Environment Day: Noise, climate change, and the disappearance of species
Other endemic and rare species supported by the Ganga and other Indian rivers have become endangered too. The Ganges Shark, one of only six species of freshwater sharks in the world, is one of the 20 most threatened shark species and is critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Pandav goes on to say that the Ganga not only supports species that live in her waters. She directly supports “wildlife in the forests and grasslands along the upper reaches”. He explains that “forests between Rishikesh and Haridwar support some of the richest mammalian assemblages” including “elephant, tiger, leopard, hyena, jackal, sloth bear, black bear, civets (common palm, masked palm and small Indian), smooth coated otter, sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, nilgai, wild pig and goral”.
All rivers do not run over-ground. The Saraswati river, another great North Indian river, was first mentioned in the Rig Veda as a “great and holy river in north-western India”. Although long considered a myth since she was never physically identified, recent satellite images indicate that a huge river in the area where the Saraswati is described dried up about 5,000 years ago and possibly still runs underground.
However, most of the groundwater table consists not of underground rivers but of aquifers which collect and store rainwater in the nooks and crannies between sub-strata materials like gravel and sand. Satyagriha protests against mining of valuable 'black sand' at Tottappally Spillway Estuary led by Bhaskaran Bhadran have continued for over a year. Led by Bhaskaran Bhadran, over 100 local people participated to mark the festival of Onam. Image: Sumaira Abdulali, June 2022
Sand consists of irregular particles formed when rocks are churned and crushed in the turbulent flow of rivers. Sand is essential to maintain the groundwater table and is also the natural base through which rivers flow. Sand hosts biodiverse life including mangroves, crabs, migratory and water birds among myriad known and yet-to-be-known species.
‘As plentiful as grains of sand’ is a common phrase demonstrating its inexhaustible nature.
In reality, nothing is truly infinite: Excessive and illegal sand mining worsened the destabilisation of the Ganga, already precarious from haphazard construction of roads, houses and resorts (all of which were constructed using sand) and intensified the adverse effects of flash floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 when over 6,000 people died. In 2021, construction of a large hydropower dam destabilised an area near the Nanda Devi National Park and killed 200 people in a subsequent landslide and floods.
On the southern end of India, at the mouth of an estuary where the Thottappally Spillway meets the salt water of the Arabian Sea in Kerala, Bhadran Bhaskaran, who has led a struggle to voice people’s opposition to sand mining for over a year said, “On Onam day there was a massive fasting at Thottappally to protest sand mining. Nearly 100 people participated. Sadly no one is listening to us.”
However, the local villagers are in no mood to give up their 15-month long relay satyagraha protest. They know the mounds of ‘black sands’ on Thottappally’s exceptionally beautiful beach are unique in their composition containing valuable minerals, a rare national asset. “The mining, washing and exposing of the radioactive sand threatens the health of the people in the area with cancerous radiation hazard, and destroys the estuarine eco-system,” Bhaskaran explained on the one-year anniversary of their protest which I attended in June 2022.
In Maharashtra, in 2010 when sand mining was still a little-known environmental hazard, local resident Naseer Jalal, journalist Viju B and I had been attacked by the sand mafia at Mahad, in the vicinity of Bankot Creek, where sand has continued to be extensively mined thereafter.
A recent study by the Srushti Conservation Foundation found a large area of land lost at the mouth of Bankot Creek. Dr Deepak Apte, managing director of Srushti Conservation Foundation explained, “Sand mining is not only deepening the creek, it is also facilitating large scale land degradation along the shores of the creek and saltwater intrusion into freshwater wells.”
In addition to their other munificence, rivers are also indispensable to provide water for food crops. Archeological evidence indicates indigenous rice within the Ganga river system as the basis of our earliest civilisations, even as early as 6500 BC. Thousands of years later, the ancient cities of Harappa developed elaborate irrigation systems to water their crops.
The Interlinking of Rivers Project of the Government of India seeks to bring the benefits of irrigation to water-scarce areas by connecting 60 rivers with each other. Conversely, however, this project also has the potential to disrupt established rhythms and natural ecosystems of individual river systems, to risk their health and the biodiversity they support including fish we depend on for food.
Inger Anderson, in the UNEP report ‘International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure’ warns us that “our current infrastructure causes unsustainable patterns of natural resource use that drive climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. To defeat these three planetary crises and deliver on the 2030 Agenda, we urgently need to rethink our infrastructure systems.”
CoP27 will be held in November 2022. Its calendar lists ‘Water’ along with ‘Gender’ and occupies one full day. Says President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in a welcome message, “We are now able to better understand the science behind climate change, better assess its impacts, and better develop tools to address its causes and consequences.”
Naseer Jalal’s family once fished in the rivers and creeks at Mahad. In March 2010, Naseer and I sat on a boat and took the first pictures of illegal sand mining. He pointed out black polluted waters and told a long-ago story where children swam and where the fish never ran out. “As a result of pollution and sand mining, there are no fish left. My children will never taste that delicious fish, will never experience the clean waters of the river we once took for granted,” he lamented.
We got into our car and were chased and attacked by the sand mafia. Amidst broken shards of glass after a truck deliberately crashed into us on a bridge and attempted to throw us into the river a hundred feet below, I turned around and saw his sad eyes, lamenting the loss of his idyllic childhood river.(Sumaira Abdulali is the convenor of Awaaz Foundation)
(This story appears in the 21 October, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)