Safe drinking water and sanitation services are common issues in most rapidly growing developing cities. Varanasi is no exception; however, the situation in Varanasi is different compared to the ones of other cities at a similar development stage. Varanasi’s water supply is highly dependent on the Ganga, which is considered to be sacred and purifying by the Hindus. Immersion and ablution in its water are daily procedures for the inhabitants as well for the numerous pilgrims. Every day, around 60,000 people take a holy dip in the Ganga in Varanasi. Furthermore, religious practices, such as burning of corpses, aggravate the pollution of the river. This extreme focus of daily life along the river makes Varanasi’s water situation more unique but also more urgent than in other cities (Mishra 2005).
During the last century the city spread in a rather unplanned way. The lack of a strong coordinating body resulted in serious deficits in the field of large infrastructures such as drainage and sewerage systems. Consequently, the capacity of the old sewers exceeded and the city’s sewage and industrial waste flow into the Ganga, polluting the river heavily. Today, the largest part of the sewage, industrial effluent, run-off from chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture and huge quantities of solid waste are dumped in the Ganga untreated. Even thousands of animal carcasses and hundreds of human corpses are thrown into the river every day contributing to the pollution (cf. e.g. Jaiswal 2007; Mishra 2005). The problem of pollution is further intensified by over-extraction and diversion of the river water (Jaiswal 2007).
The pollution of the Ganga presents a severe health hazard, in particular for those who bathe in the river and drink its water. In their study, Pandey et al. (2005) found out that the Ganga water pollution has a very significant effect on occurrence of enteric diseases in Varanasi city. In particular the concentration of Nitrate, Chloride and Faecal coliforms in the river water has a major effect on water-borne diseases. The result of this study indicates that the drinking water may cause enteric diseases even if the raw Ganga water is treated properly. One possible explanation is that contamination could take place due to seepage of old supply pipelines (Pandey et al. 2005).
Many efforts to clean-up the holy Ganga were undertaken during the last decades. The most comprehensive was The Ganga Action Plan (GAP). The GAP was an ambitious program, prepared by the Department of Environment and approved by the Cabinet in 1985, in order to reduce the pollution of the Ganga. It was launched at Varanasi in June 1986 (Jaiswal 2007). The objectives of the GAP were to abate pollution and to improve the river water quality by interception, diversion and treatment of domestic sewage and control of non-point, non-measurable pollution from human defecation, dumping of dead bodies etc. (CAG 2000). To achieve these objectives the GAP took up core and non-core schemes. Actions addressed to major, direct causes of pollution were identified as core sector schemes, consisting of interception, and diversion schemes of domestic wastewater and sewage treatment plants. Non-core sector schemes consisted of actions such as implementation of low cost sanitation systems, installation of crematoria and riverfront development (CAG 2000). In Varanasi five sewage pumps were installed to intercept sewage flowing into the Ganga from 30 point sources (Mishra 2005).
The government argued that the GAP was successful in Varanasi but the Sankat Mochan Foundation, a local NGO focusing on the pollution of the Ganga, could show that during power cuts and the flood season the sewage pumps do not work and that the total sewage of Varanasi passes into the river untreated (SMF 2011). From 1993 the GAP I was extended as GAP II covering four major tributaries of the Ganga (CAG 2000).The Ganga Action Plan is commonly seen as a complete failure. While the government and some studies claim that the water quality of the river has increased since the implementation of the GAP (CAG 2000), other scientists argue that the Ganga today is more polluted than when the GAP was first initiated in 1986 (Jaiswal 2007; Mishra 2005). Mishra (2005) states that while in 1986 about 147 mld (million litres per day) of untreated sewage and waste produced in Varanasi flowed into the Ganga, in 2004 it was over 200 mld. Nevertheless, there are disagreements about the exact achievements of the Ganga Action Plan there is a consensus on the fact that the Ganga is still highly polluted.
Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) (2000): Ganga Action Plan. http://www.cag.gov.in/reports/scientific/2000_book2/gangaactionplan.htm (23.09.2011)
Jaiswal, R. K. (2007): Ganga Action Plan – A critical analysis, Working paper, 49 p.
Mishra, V. B. (2005): The Ganga at Varanasi and a travail to stop her abuse. In: Current Science. Vol. 89, No. 5. pp. 755-763.
Pandey, J. et al. (2005): Ganga Water Pollution and Occurrence of Enteric Diseases in Varanasi City. Indian Journal of Community Medicine: Vol. 30, No. 4.. pp. 115-120.
Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF) (2011): The struggle to save Ganga. http://www.sankatmochanfoundationonline.org/save_ganga.html (23.09.2011)