Wednesday, July 14, 2010
This is from my article "Dirty Water: India and China share a grave environmental problem—extreme water pollution" that was just published in Scientific American Lives--a special issue that launched a new magazine. To read the rest of the story, click on the title to this post.
The hazy dawn knits river to sky on the banks of the holy Ganges river in Varanasi. Even at sunrise, the city’s 4.5-mile waterfront bustles. Bathers brush their teeth, soap themselves, and scrub their children. Legions wash laundry, gather water, and scour dishes. Men swim and lounge on ghats (steps that descend into the Ganges). Black noses and curving horns betray the presence of submerged water buffalo.
Women in bright saris gather in groups or with their families at the water’s edge. Up to 60,000 pilgrims journey to this sacred, 3,000-year-old city from across India each day. They sculpt altars in slick, gray mud, making offerings of flowers and candles. They pour Ganges water, pray, take a sacramental sip and immerse themselves in the turbid river for spiritual healing.
At the “burning ghats,” flames consume the bodies of the dead: Hindus believe casting their remains into the Ganges guides their souls to heaven. To them, this river is the mother goddess, Ganga Ma, who washes away humanity’s sins.
Four hundred million people rely on the Ganges watershed for drinking water, including Varanasi’s 1.6 million residents. But along its 1,560-mile journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the river absorbs raw sewage from 116 cities. Waste has turned these waters into a highway for viruses and bacteria, including deadly, dysentery-causing microbes like E. coli O157 and Shigella, and those that cause cholera, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Last year, the Indian government pledged $4 billion for river cleanup to stem the tide of waterborne disease.
But the problem of environmental water pollution extends far beyond the Ganges. Municipal waste, pesticides, and industrial chemicals foul waterways and drinking water across the globe, with the worst pollution concentrated in developing countries. If India’s waterways are the dubious poster children for sewage, then China’s waters take that role for toxic chemicals. Municipal waste is also a severe problem in China, but three decades of meteoric industrial growth have laced lakes and rivers with a witches’ brew of chemicals. Some Chinese waters are now among the most polluted on Earth.