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The river has its own natural capacity to treat waste: dissolved oxygen in a healthy river digests bacteria. The Hindu belief that the Ganges always remains pure, that it can heal itself, has some basis in science. But the combination of a rising pollution load and falling water levels makes that process much harder. The gap between the amount of sewage produced in Varanasi and the amount treated has steadily widened and now stands at 50 million gal. (189 million L) per day, nearly all of which flows through open drains into the Ganges. Upadhyay is angry that Delhi is being allowed to grow unchecked, to the detriment of every other part of the Ganges River Basin. In the competition between the megacity and the holy city, Upadhyay says, "Delhi is winning, of course."
Ironically, Varanasi's problems with river pollution are finally getting the attention of politicians in the capital. In February, the Indian government committed $4 billion to clean up the Ganges, including funds to build and provide backup power for enough sewage-treatment plants to meet Varanasi's expected needs in 2030. The central government is also funding a pilot project for a series of treatment ponds that use bacteria to digest waste and can be run with minimal power.
Those ponds will be the fulfillment of 28 years of single-minded advocacy by Veer Bhadra Mishra, one of the Ganges' best-known protectors. When he founded the Clean Ganga movement, the solution to Varanasi's problems seemed obvious: build more sewage-treatment plants. That proved to be folly. More than a dozen plants were built but failed to function properly because the electricity supply was unreliable. So Mishra, 72, used his unique credentials he is the chief priest of the 400-year-old Sankat Mochan temple and a professor of hydraulic engineering at the local university to push for creative ways to clean the river. "We say that if the river doesn't have water, then the river dies," he says. "And with it, the story of Ganga will be over."
Acknowledging that the Ganges is polluted means believing that it can be polluted, an idea many devout Hindus once refused to accept. But Mishra's influence has changed attitudes. Now people strictly observe the rule against bathing with soap in the river, and there are no longer plastic bags full of marigold offerings floating on its surface. And all along the river, there is a new mantra, "minimum dry-weather flow," as engineers and policymakers have begun to realize that quantity is as important as quality to the river's health.
Not even the devout deny the plight of the Ganges now. But there is another belief in India that is a much greater danger: the notion that economic growth can raise incomes and living standards without limit or consequence. Water may be a renewable resource, but it is not boundless. As rivers and springs are depleted, Indians increasingly rely on groundwater for their household needs; it is already the largest user of groundwater in the world, consuming more than 25% of the global total.
Still, as the new water-management plans in Delhi, Kanpur and Varanasi suggest, all is not lost. India's planners are finally realizing that dams, canals, water taps and sewer lines are as connected to one another as rivers are to the glaciers, rain and groundwater that feed them. About 50 miles (80 km) from the Tehri Dam, I met Ambrish Sharma, executive engineer of a small dam at Dakpathar Barrage and a proponent of this new thinking. Sharma is as passionate about preserving forest cover to recharge the rivers as he is about the need for hydropower. "We should do everything," he says.
He is not willing to give up on dams altogether. Done correctly, hydropower is a clean, renewable source of energy that India has in abundance, and Sharma has seen the alternative. Before coming to Uttarakhand, Sharma worked at a coal-fired plant in the western deserts of Rajasthan. The worst part of the job, he says, was watching the coal. One 250-MW boiler burns more than 150 tons of coal in an hour. "It's good to work in hydropower," he says simply. Sharma finishes this story and smiles as we are served two glasses of water on a tray. "It's untreated water from the Yamuna," he says, the same water that leaves the dam. We drink, and it tastes divine.