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Summary Article: Ganges River
From Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

THE GANGES RIVER, 1,557 miles in length, flows eastward along the border separating the Himalayan complex and the flat expanse of the Indian subcontinent. Known to Hindus as the Ganga, the river is a source of water for human consumption, agriculture, and industry. The Ganges is worshipped in the Hindu religion as a goddess. People bathe in the waters of the Ganges to be cleansed of sins and to ensure salvation. It is believed that drinking water from the river with one’s final breath will deliver the soul to heaven. The number of people living along the broad Ganges river valley approaches 300 million. The Ganges is perhaps the most polluted river on the planet. The volume of raw sewage spilled into the river is gigantic. In addition, a variety of industrial wastes find their way into the river. One in particular is especially damaging: the leather industry located near Kanpur emits large amounts of chromium into the river.

The Ganges Action Plan, initiated in 1985, was established to address serious pollution problems along the river. The program includes the building of a number of solid waste treatment plants along the river in an attempt to reduce the enormous amounts of sewage absorbed in the water. Hindu politicians have traditionally not been very active in support of the plan. Some environmentalists believe that progress is being made on this program. However, the enormity of the situation will require an energetic and sustained effort well into the future in order to significantly reduce the danger from the dumping of raw sewage.

The Ganges provides water for an extremely productive agricultural sector. A variety of crops are grown in the extensive fields along the river’s course. An intricate network of canals was built over the years to direct the water to the rich soils of agricultural fields within the river valley. The river has been dammed at several sites for water management in the agricultural regions and for power generation. The hydroelectric generation plant at Farakka near the junction with the Hooghly River and close to the border with Bangladesh is an important source of power for a region containing millions of people. The Ganges empties into the Bay of Bengal and its alluvial deposits over the years have created a gigantic delta formation, the largest in the world. The delta is known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, a 220-mile wide expanse of alluvial deposits. Kolkata (formerly named Calcutta) is a major Indian seaport in the region.

The delta is highly populated with nearly 150 million people living in this precarious area. The delta is prone to flooding during the monsoon season in the spring when warm moist air from the Indian Ocean is diverted over the Indian subcontinent, bringing much-needed rainfall to awaiting agricultural fields. The rainfall is frequently excessive and flooding can occur. In 1970, an enormous cyclone hit the delta, resulting in the death of an estimated one million people. In 1998, flooding on the Ganges killed over 1,000 people and left over 30 million homeless. During that year of flooding the entire crop of rice, the main grain of the region, was completely lost.

The Ganges Delta lies within the wet tropical climate zone. As a consequence of this location the region receives between 60 and 100 inches of rainfall per year. The region is essentially alluvial plain only a few feet above sea level. The combination of high rainfall, flat land, and frequent cyclonic storms can bring flooding conditions with regularity. The region is especially vulnerable, as well, to possible increases in sea level resulting from global warming. Should this change occur in the future, the impact on the Ganges Delta would be potentially disastrous to its millions of inhabitants.

  • India; Indian Ocean; Rivers.

  • Kelly D. Alley, On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River (University of Michigan Press, 2002).
  • Stephen Alter, Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges to the Source of Hindu Culture (Harcourt, 2001).
  • Dennison Berwick, A Walk Along the Ganges (Century Hutchinson, 1986).
  • Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges (Lonely Planet Publications, 1998).
  • Gerald R. Pitzl, Ph.D.
    Rural Education Bureau
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, inc.

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