River Ganges

"The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."
- Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, born in Allahabad on the Ganges.

The river known as the Ganges is officially and popularly known by its Hindu name, Ganga. The river has its source in the Himalayas, at Gaumakh in the southern Himalayas on the Indian side of the Tibetan border. It is 1 560 miles (2 510 km) long and flows through China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Ganges river basin is one of the most fertile and densely populated in the world and covers an area of 400 000 sq miles (1 000 000 sq km). The river flows through 29 cities with population over 100,000, 23 cities with population between 50,000 and 100,000, and about 48 towns.

The Delta

The silt deposits of the delta cover an area of 23 000 sq miles (60 000 sq km). The river courses in the delta are broad and active, carrying a vast amount of water. The rains from June to October cause most of the Bangladeshi delta region to flood, leaving the villages that are built on artificially raised land isolated. On the seaward side of the delta are swamplands and tidal forests called Sunderbans which are protected conservation areas in both Indian and Bangladeshi law. The peat found in the delta is used for fertiliser and fuel. The water supply to the river depends on the rains brought by the monsoon winds from July to October and the melting snow from the Himalayas during the period from April to June. The delta also experiences strong cyclonic storms before and after the monsoon season which can be devastating. In November 1970, for example, 200 000 - 500 000 people were killed in such storms.

The delta used to be densely forested and inhabited by many wild animals. Today, however, it has become intensely cultivated to meet the needs of the growing population and many of the wild animals have disappeared. The Royal Bengal Tiger still lives in the Sunderbans and kills about 30 villagers every year. There remains high fish populations in the rivers which provides an important part of the inhabitants' diet. Bird life in the Ganges basin is also prolific.

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Religious Significance

The people of the Ganges basin are of mixed origin. In the west and centre of the region Turks, Mongols, Afghans, Persians and Arabs intermingled with the original Aryans, while in the east and south (the Bengal area) the people originate from a mixture of Tibetan, Burman and hill peoples. Hindus regard the Ganges as the holiest of rivers. It was named after the goddess Ganga, the daughter of the mountain god Himalaya. Pilgrimage sites are particularly significant along the river. At the confluence of the Ganges and and the Tamuna tributory near Allahabad a bathing festival in January and February attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Other holy pilgrimage sites along the river include Haridwar, the place where the Ganges leaves the Himalayas, and Allahabad, where the mythical Saraswati river is believed to enter the Ganges. Water from the Ganges is used to cleanse any place or object for ritual purposes. Bathing in the river is believed to wash away one's sins. To bathe in the Ganga is a lifelong ambition for Hindus and they congregate in incredible numbers for the Sangam, Sagar Mela and Kumbh Mela festivals. It is believed that any water that mixes with even the smallest amount of Ganges water becomes holy with healing powers. Hindus also cast the ashes of their dead in the river in the belief that this will guide the souls of the deceased straight to paradise.

 

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Economic Significance

The Ganges has been used for irrigation since ancient times. In the Ganges valley the use of irrigation canals has increased the production of cash crops such as sugarcane, cotton and oilseeds. Before the 19th century much of the Ganges was navigable but this declined with the construction of railroads and the increasing use of water for irrigation. West Bengal and Bangladesh, however, do still use the waterways to transport jute, tea, grain and other agricultural products. The hydroelectric potential of the Ganges is 13 million kilowatts, two fifths of which lies in India and the rest in Nepal.

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Dams & the Farakka Barrage

The Haridwar dam diverts melted snow from the Himalayas to the Upper Ganges Canal which was built by the British in 1854. This water is used for irrigation but has greatly diminished the flow of the river and has led to the decay of the Ganges as an inland waterway. The construction of the Farakka Barrage at the head of the delta in West Bengal is a cause of major tension between India and Bangladesh. India claims that the port of Calcutta is being detrimentally effected by deposits of silt and by the intrusion of saline seawater. To counter these effects fresh water is diverted into the Bhagirathi River via a large canal from the Ganges at Farakka. However, after its construction the salinity of water and soil increased markedly . Also recurring floods caused by siltation and the opening of the Farakkaits Barrage sluice gates during the monsoon season resulted in extensive damage to crops. Soil moisture and groundwater levels continue to decrease and the ecosystems of the region are being damaged. Bangladesh claims that the Farakka Barrage deprives the country of a valuable source of water on which it depends because the Ganges waters are vital to irrigation, navigation and prevention of saline incursions in the Bangladesh Ganges delta region. Bangladesh holds that there should be joint control between India and Bangladesh over the waters of the Ganges as an international river. In 1980 the Ganges Barrage Project was set up by the Bangladeshi government in an attempt to maintain the ecological balance and save crops and property from the recurring floods and droughts. Interim agreements have been reached between India and Bangladesh on this issue - the "Treaty Between the government of the Republic of India and the government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh on Sharing of the Ganga/Ganges Waters at Farakka" signed on December 12, 1996, but a permanent settlement has not yet been attained. See the Treaty.

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Pollution

Pollution of the Ganges has become so serious that bathing in and drinking its water has become very dangerous. The major polluting industry along the Ganges is the leather industry especially near Kanpur, from which Chromium and other chemicals leak into the river. Another huge source of pollution is that of the nearly 1 billion litres of mostly untreated raw sewage that enters the river every day. Inadequate cremation procedures result in partially burnt or unburnt corpses floating in the river. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was set up in 1985 by the Indian government with British and Dutch support to build a number of waste treatment facilities. Under the GAP sewage is intercepted and water is diverted for treatment and several electrical crematoria have been built. The project is now in its second phase - GAP II.

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The Ganges River Dolphin

The Ganges river dolphin (platanista gangetia) is found in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, in the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Karnaphuli and Hoogli river systems. The river water is so muddy that vision is useless and so these dolphins are blind and their eyes have no lenses. They use a sophisticated echolocation system to navigate and find food. They eat shrimp and fish from the mud in river bottoms. They are solitary creatures and are only found in fresh water. The Ganges river dolphin is an endangered species as a result of a number of factors. These factors include the damming of rivers for hydroelectric and irrigation purposes, and the increase in boat traffic, fishing and pollution. They are also hunted by humans for meat and oil. There are only approximately 4000 - 6000 individuals left.

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