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27.07.2010 Asia

How India’s success is killing its holy river

By ti Thottam / Pipola - Ghanaian Chronicle
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By Jyoti Thottam / Pipola In a pine-scented Himalayan valley, Sushila Devi is a reluctant soldier in India's new war over water. Her village, Pipola, sits just southeast of the Tehri Dam, which bestrides one of the precursors of the Ganges River and is India's largest hydropower project.

Since the dam was completed in 2006, the natural spring that once fed Pipola has dried up. Several times a day, Devi drapes a red sari above her blue eyes, hoists a 2.5-gal. (10 L) brass vessel atop her head and walks to the nearest hand pump. There, she and the other women of Pipola spend two or three hours a day, sometimes more, locked in low-intensity combat. “We have to go to the next village,” she says. “Oh, how angry they get. They fight. We wait.”

Like any conflict, this one has its desperate refugees and its frustrated negotiators. Virojini Devi's family is one of several in Pipola that had to give up farming for lack of water. Three months ago, her husband left the village to work in a hotel bakery outside of New Delhi, hoping to earn enough to feed their five children.

She scavenges along the rough mountain roads for water while the giant lake created by the dam lies untouched a few hundred meters below on the valley floor. “Something is not right,” she says. Roshini Devi, Pipola's elected village pradhan, or chief, met with state officials recently to propose pumping water up from the lake. They agreed to the plan but so far have delivered nothing but a twice-daily visit from a water tanker. “It's not a permanent solution,” she says.

Battles like the one in Pipola are festering all over India. Taken together, they represent a crisis that affects not just India's deserts but also water-rich areas like the Gangetic Plain, the vast, fertile farmland nourished by the Ganges and its mighty network of tributaries. It's a crisis brought on by India's relentless push to modernize, as water that once sustained small towns and villages is increasingly put in service of big hydroelectric dams, big cities and big agriculture — the engines of economic growth.

Following the Ganges (known as Ganga to Indians) from the Himalayas to Varanasi, 600 miles (965 km) downstream, I saw this tension play out in countless ways. As the villages around the Tehri Dam lose their natural springs, the dam sends drinking water and electricity to Delhi, home to 16 million people. Delhi sucks up not only water but people too — migrants who leave their farms for the city because there isn't enough water to sustain them.

The urban areas don't always win, however. Farther downriver, the farms of India's powerful rural heartland divert power and water from small cities like Kanpur. Without enough of either, Kanpur's fight against industrial pollution has become nearly impossible. These competing demands are lowering water levels all along the Ganges, a crisis most apparent in the sacred city of Varanasi.

There, a decades-long push to clean up the river is gaining momentum and attracting money, but it may not be enough to correct the miles of mismanagement upstream.

The good news is that India's rivers can still be saved. Like the causes of water scarcity, the policies that can correct them are local and could be put in place immediately. “Water is an issue, unlike climate change, about which I'm not at all despondent,” says Sunita Narain, one of India's most influential environmentalists. “In spite of the fact that our rivers really need to be cremated, I do believe that we have solutions.”

Finding solutions matters not just to those who live along India's riverbanks. If the country fails to keep up with the water needs of its growing cities, those cities will be unable to sustain the robust economic growth that has become a magnet for global investment.

Without sensible water policies, political agitation — like the recent controversies over Coca-Cola's use of groundwater in rural communities in southern and western India — will become more frequent and river-sharing negotiations with India's neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh more tense. To cope with its chronic water shortages, India employs electric groundwater pumps, diesel-powered water tankers and coal-fed power plants.

If the country increasingly relies on these energy-intensive short-term fixes, the whole planet's climate will bear the consequences. India is under enormous pressure to develop its economic potential while also protecting its environment — something few, if any, countries have accomplished. What India does with its water will be a test of whether that combination is possible.

The Tehri Dam is the grandest fulfillment of Jawaharlal Nehru's hope that dams would be the “temples of modern India.” The dam wall is 870 ft. (265 m) high — taller than the Hoover Dam — and when completed, the dam formed a reservoir 47 miles (75 km) long that completely submerged the old town of Tehri. But the dam is also a stark example of how quickly a place with abundant water resources can turn into one plagued by shortage.

There are more than 100 villages like Pipola scattered around the reservoir's rim, and they feel that shortage acutely. The villages can't get water from the lake itself — the walls of the reservoir are the exposed sides of a blasted mountain made of loose gravel too steep to climb — and the construction of the dam has disrupted the underground sources of the area's natural springs.

So the residents of Pipola are lobbying Ramesh Pokhriyal, chief minister of Uttarakhand state, for a pumping station. When I met him in Dehra Dun, the state's capital, he insisted that all the affected villages near the Tehri Dam would be helped “in due course of time.”

The local water shortage is a minor obstacle to his much larger ambitions for the state. Pokhriyal, known as Nishank (“he who is without doubt”), has a plan to turn Uttarakhand into an investor-friendly, eco-friendly mountain paradise. “Even Switzerland is nothing compared to us,” Pokhriyal says.

He wants to promote adventure sports, ayurvedic spas, organic food and spiritual tourism, along with heavy industry. Pokhriyal plans to build 10 more dams over the next few years to fund his vision, but there may not be enough water in the area's rivers to fill them: water levels are declining across the state.

Uttarakhand rushed to hydropowered development so quickly that it went from a power surplus to a power deficit in just the past two years. Hydropower officials blame climate change; activists blame damage to the rivers' catchment areas. Whatever the cause, the Tehri Dam hasn't come close to delivering the amount of power or water that was expected. On the day I visited, it was running at 25% capacity. To meet demand for power, the dam actually pumps water back upstream and reuses it.

Capital Waste From the Tehri Dam, the Upper Ganga Canal channels clean drinking water 121 miles (194 km) downstream to the nation's capital. Thanks to this bounty and supplies from its own river, the Yamuna, Delhi enjoys a water availability of 66 gal. (250 L) per person per day — comparable to the amount consumed in much of Europe. As Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and the Environment, puts it, “Delhi is a pampered city.”

Very few of the city's residents experience that abundance. Delhi loses about half the water it gets to leakage, from both decaying pipes and theft, and what's left isn't evenly distributed. The privileged parts of central Delhi get as much as 132 gal. (500 L) of water per capita per day; others get only 8 gal. (30 L). And so in Delhi, as in Tehri, the poor line up at municipal water tankers and hand pumps. The Sonia Vihar pumping station, which opened in 2006, was meant to ease chronic water shortages by using supplies from the Tehri Dam. But there isn't enough water in the reservoir, and Sonia Vihar has been operating below its expected capacity of 140 million gal. (530 million L) per day for the past two years.

Delhi's water inequity is one of the many widening gaps between rich and poor in this booming city. Another is sanitation. The city's population has exploded by 60% since 1995, but Delhi has failed to invest in underground sewer lines to keep pace. More than 6 million people remain unconnected to any sewer line (mainly because they live in unauthorized housing settlements), and their wastewater flows into open drains. When the Yamuna River leaves Delhi, it is unable to support any but the smallest aquatic life.

The capital has spent more than $325 million on river-cleanup schemes, but they have little effect when the city empties 475.5 million gal. (1.8 billion L) of untreated wastewater into the river every day. Delhi's leaders are considering building a new system of sewers, but Narain says raising the price of water is a more urgently needed fix. It would be unpopular, but it would help pay for sewers and give those who have plenty of water an incentive to use less.

Torrent of Toxins In the 19th century, Kanpur was as important as Delhi. It was a huge garrison town for the British army and then grew into a major producer of leather goods. Kanpur's 400 tanneries still make up its largest industry. The population has grown by 60% since 1990, to more than 3.2 million, making it the biggest city between Delhi and Kolkata.

Growth has generated the usual urban ills: traffic, pollution and high real estate prices, plus the special burden of the tanneries: 8 million gal. (30 million L) a day of wastewater contaminated with chromium and other chemical by-products. Like Delhi, Kanpur's wastewater-treatment system is chronically inadequate.

But unlike the capital, Kanpur does not have clean drinking water delivered from upstream. Instead, two additional canals along the Ganges divert water to farmers in the powerful rural areas, so by the time the river reaches Kanpur, it is already depleted. As a result, Kanpur has the most widespread water poverty of any major Indian city: a third of its residents get by on less than 13 gal. (50 L) per day. The city's leading environmental crusader, Rakesh Jaiswal, is worn out from a two-decade case against tannery pollution.

His legal battle with the tanneries resulted in the closure of 127 egregious polluters in 1998. But closing tanneries just pushed them farther downstream, so Jaiswal, 51, has shifted his energy toward getting them to pay for their own wastewater treatment rather than expect the city or state to foot the bill.

Jaiswal has found an unlikely ally in Imran Siddiqui, director of one of Kanpur's oldest and largest tanneries. Super Tannery is in the heart of Kanpur's traditional leather district, called Jajmau. Pony carts still carry hides along the cobblestone streets nearby, but this factory is a huge beneficiary of the global economy. It makes nearly 5,000 pairs of shoes a day for export to the U.S., Europe and Australia, worth $39 million a year. Siddiqui is proud of its success, but he wants to rid his industry of its bad reputation.

He recently took 11 other tannery executives on a trip to Italy to show them how that country's 10,000 tanneries thrive despite strict regulations. When their treated wastewater enters the Arno River, Siddiqui says, “it is crystal clear.”

Convinced that Kanpur can do the same, he submitted a $76 million proposal to the central government that would include everything from a centralized effluent pipeline to an off-site landfill for recovered chrome.

Tanners would pay according to the amount of wastewater they produce, giving them an incentive to use fewer chemicals and less water. “The government has to be strict,” he says. Jaiswal should be heartened by this enthusiasm and by the central government's approval of $250 million in water and sewer improvements for the city. But he worries that even if Kanpur cleans up its stretch of the Ganges, it can't increase the amount of water flowing into the city from other, more politically important places upstream. “If things continue as they are,” he says, “in the next five years, there will be no Ganga in Kanpur.”

An Unholy Mess By the time the Ganges reaches Varanasi, India's holiest city, the river has been somewhat restored by several tributaries. This influx helps dilute the impact of pollution, and there is enough water to carry boatloads of Hindu pilgrims who come to offer prayers in this temple town of 1.3 million.

Even so, water levels have fallen steeply: the Ganges once had an average depth of about 197 ft. (60 m) around Varanasi, but in some places it is now only 33 ft. (10 m). Upstream there are stretches where the Ganges has disappeared completely. The blame, again, goes to Nehru's secular temple. “A significant change happened after Tehri [was built],” says chemical engineer S.N. Upadhyay, one of the first scientists to document the steady decline of the river's health.

The river has its own natural capacity to treat waste: dissolved oxygen in a healthy river digests bacteria. The Hindu belief that the Ganges always remains pure, that it can heal itself, has some basis in science. But the combination of a rising pollution load and falling water levels makes that process much harder.

The gap between the amount of sewage produced in Varanasi and the amount treated has steadily widened and now stands at 50 million gal. (189 million L) per day, nearly all of which flows through open drains into the Ganges. Upadhyay is angry that Delhi is being allowed to grow unchecked, to the detriment of every other part of the Ganges River Basin. In the competition between the megacity and the holy city, Upadhyay says, “Delhi is winning, of course.”

Ironically, Varanasi's problems with river pollution are finally getting the attention of politicians in the capital. In February, the Indian government committed $4 billion to clean up the Ganges, including funds to build and provide backup power for enough sewage-treatment plants to meet Varanasi's expected needs in 2030.

The central government is also funding a pilot project for a series of treatment ponds that use bacteria to digest waste and can be run with minimal power.

Those ponds will be the fulfillment of 28 years of single-minded advocacy by Veer Bhadra Mishra, one of the Ganges' best-known protectors. When he founded the Clean Ganga movement, the solution to Varanasi's problems seemed obvious: build more sewage-treatment plants. That proved to be folly. More than a dozen plants were built but failed to function properly because the electricity supply was unreliable. So Mishra, 72, used his unique credentials — he is the chief priest of the 400-year-old Sankat Mochan temple and a professor of hydraulic engineering at the local university — to push for creative ways to clean the river. “We say that if the river doesn't have water, then the river dies,” he says. “And with it, the story of Ganga will be over.”

Acknowledging that the Ganges is polluted means believing that it can be polluted, an idea many devout Hindus once refused to accept. But Mishra's influence has changed attitudes. Now people strictly observe the rule against bathing with soap in the river, and there are no longer plastic bags full of marigold offerings floating on its surface. And all along the river, there is a new mantra, “minimum dry-weather flow,” as engineers and policymakers have begun to realize that quantity is as important as quality to the river's health.

Not even the devout deny the plight of the Ganges now. But there is another belief in India that is a much greater danger: the notion that economic growth can raise incomes and living standards without limit or consequence. Water may be a renewable resource, but it is not boundless. As rivers and springs are depleted, Indians increasingly rely on groundwater for their household needs; it is already the largest user of groundwater in the world, consuming more than 25% of the global total.

Still, as the new water-management plans in Delhi, Kanpur and Varanasi suggest, all is not lost. India's planners are finally realizing that dams, canals, water taps and sewer lines are as connected to one another as rivers are to the glaciers, rain and groundwater that feed them. About 50 miles (80 km) from the Tehri Dam, I met Ambrish Sharma, executive engineer of a small dam at Dakpathar Barrage and a proponent of this new thinking. Sharma is as passionate about preserving forest cover to recharge the rivers as he is about the need for hydropower. “We should do everything,” he says.

He is not willing to give up on dams altogether. Done correctly, hydropower is a clean, renewable source of energy that India has in abundance, and Sharma has seen the alternative. Before coming to Uttarakhand, Sharma worked at a coal-fired plant in the western deserts of Rajasthan. The worst part of the job, he says, was watching the coal. One 250-MW boiler burns more than 150 tons of coal in an hour. “It's good to work in hydropower,” he says simply. Sharma finishes this story and smiles as we are served two glasses of water on a tray. “It's untreated water from the Yamuna,” he says, the same water that leaves the dam. We drink, and it tastes divine.