In celebration of Water Quality Month, this is the first of two articles on the River Ganges by Caitlin Flannery, a valued contributor to Blue Ocean Network. This articles opens a series Caitlin is writing on the legal rights that are being granted to Mother Nature. Thank you, Caitlin!
Hindu devotees on the River Ganges during Somvati Amavasya in Haridwar, India, (photo – AP)
Big News for a Big River!
Dual rulings in the Indian state of Uttarakhand have declared the Rivers Ganges and Yamuna, along with the glaciers Gangotri and Yamunotri, into living legal entities: Citing numerous international precedents, this decision in India closely follows legislation in New Zealand granting similar status to their Whanganui River.
Who Does this Affect?
Part of the Himalayan Mountain Range, the rivers start at the melting of glaciers. The River Ganges begins at Gangotri Glacier. The River Yamuna starts at Yamunotri Glacier. Also, part of this mountain range? Mount Everest.
It is a freshwater system that flows into the Indian Ocean near Kolkata (Calcutta). The watershed spreads into: four countries, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and China. Within India alone, this Ganges/Yamuna watershed includes eleven different states. The home of this historic ruling is the state of Uttarakhand. Within their borders lies the rivers and glaciers.
The health of millions of people depends on the river’s stability.
It is estimated that over half of the populations of India and Bangladesh rely on the Ganges and her watershed for their freshwater. Just accounting for the Indian population, that’s close to 700 million people!
While shocking, this estimation only covers a small portion of the value of this river system. There is so much more to value, The Ganges watershed provides irrigation for agriculture. It provides a vital living habitat for freshwater plants and animals. The plant life helps filter pollutants, helping cleanse a river that has big effects on oxygen and the ocean.
Her wetlands provide security against flooding for those that live alongside the river. The Ganges also draws huge tourism numbers. This includes foreigners who flock to see Hindu rituals, and native Indians that make pilgrimages to her shores.
Wetlands are believed to be the most productive ecosystem for storing atmospheric carbon, so their survival is key to us all.
What’s Polluting the Rivers?
Traditionally India’s Hindu majority believes this source of water to be the link to them and the afterlife. As a result, ashes and burning effigies are released into the water. People make pilgrimages to the banks. To bathe here is to remove all of your sins and be reborn.
The vast majority of the pollution however is not from the ceremonial use of this water source. It is from misuse by key industries, specifically tannery/leather production and the lax treatment of sewage waste.
“Ninety-five percent of the pollution comes from the raw sewage and industrial pollutants pouring into it.”
Damming the rivers in many locations has also affected their natural ability to cleanse themselves. When water stagnates, that ability to self-cleanse is lost. Dams, population pressures, and increasing instances of drought are starting to turn the Ganges from a river into more of a pond, storing this pollution in standing water.
The Power of Rebirth
Including wild spaces in urban development creates a changed environment that is well suited for both humans and other species. Along the banks of the Yamuna River, restoration efforts have created a rejuvenated wetland that deserves study and replication. The Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi is a model that should be repeated. It has led to the return of many native plants and animals along the crowded city’s banks. Projects such as this one should be in focus for those that take law from words into action. (photo – The telegraph, UK, Getty)
By Caitlin Flannery, contributor to Blue Ocean Network
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