The Ganges: Myth and Reality

The Ganges, long celebrated in Hindu mythology for its purifying powers, has for millennia furnished the cultures on its banks with water, crops, fish, and a means for conducting trade. But its powers are increasingly taxed by the staggering volume of untreated waste it receives from the half-billion people who live along it. At the holy city of Varanasi, pilgrims who come to bathe in the river expose themselves to coliform bacteria levels 10,000 times higher than the safety limit set by the World Health Organization for drinking water. In the city of Kanpur, chromium discharged from leather tanneries turns drinking water green. Already, 40 million workdays a year are lost to diseases the Ganges carries. If current trends continue, the river's load of sewage will double by 2020, to 2.5 billion liters, and its burden of industrial effluent will reach nearly 2 billion liters. Payal Sampat tracks the river's course—and health—from its headwaters in the Himalaya to its mouths on the Bay of Bengal.