The hungry children

The occasional commuter on Shuklaganj bridge from the northern edge of Kanpur would see large tracts of farmland below. At the height of winter, people simply wade through the trickling stream.

About 1,000km downriver, scenes are almost identical along the southern edge of Rajshahi in Bangladesh.

Dhaka Tribune’s investigation finds that the reasons behind the mighty Ganges running dry are obvious.

The holy river and its tributaries are being drained by a string of dams and barrages, with many more in the pipeline besides the thirty already in place.

A compilation of data and information shows that Indian authorities can divert over 292,000 cubic feet of water per second (cusec). That is more than three times the water flow at Farakka Barrage during the winter months, which is around 80,000 cusecs as reported by the Joint Rivers Commission.

The data has been extrapolated from public resources including Water Resources Information System of India, India’s Ministry of Water Resources, Uttar Pradesh Irrigation and Water Resources Department, Uttarakhand Irrigation Department and the Bihar Water Resources Department.

A Kanpur based environmentalist says most of the water is being diverted to irrigate farmland. “The fresh Himalayan water that makes the Ganges the perennial river is taken out of the main flow.”

President of an environmental NGO, Eco Friends, Rakesh K Jaiswal works for environmental education, protection and security in Kanpur.

“Most of the water is being diverted through the upper Ganges canal, middle Ganges canal, and lower Ganges canal.”

These structures, built over the last fifty years, have a combined irrigation coverage of 77,000 square kilometres, which is equivalent to half the landmass of Bangladesh, covering its entire farmlands.

Although the Farakka water sharing agreement states that India would try to maintain historical levels, it is a point of fact that Ganges water flow is decreasing every year when recent reports of the Joint Rivers Commission and the annex of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty are compared.

Not just a Bangladeshi problem

Water diversion from Ganges, however, is not just a ‘Bangladeshi’ problem. Thousands of Indians suffer too.

Peasant farmers living downriver from barrages complain of water scarcity. Many others have seen their ancestral lands taken over by these infrastructure projects and forced to relocate. Even those who have escaped this fate suffer from other problems as this investigation found. For instance, reservoirs cause year round fog and mist in the air which results in moisture affecting the crops of the area.

A river expert and activist of several decades, Bharat Jhunjhunwala explains the government attitude about infrastructure on the Ganges, saying that more than ecological balance or environmental health, the government was concerned with votes.

The man from Uttarakhand said the politicians are only interested about appeasing the voters. “So, they cater to the people’s demands.” Jhunjhunwala explains that these demands include more water for drinking, irrigation and other purposes, and cheaper food.

And yet ironically, he points out, the people dump their waste into the river.

“They are not aware about protecting the river. Therefore, it reflects in the politicians’ thinking also.”

Mother Ganges laden with human waste and industrial refuse add to the woes of the millions of Hindu devotees who bathe in the Ganges to cleanse the mind and body. But many of them are reduced to having their ‘gangasnan’ off the Ganges either because the water has been diverted or because there is simply not enough water to bathe in. In some other stretches of the river, pious Hindus find themselves dousing in filthy waters of the holy river.

Another activist from Varanasi said Ganges did not have Ganges water anymore. What Kaprindra Tiwari, director of the Centre for Environmental and Social Research, meant was that the water of Ganges is extracted much before it reaches the eternal city of ghats and temples.

The river activist explained that there was very limited water in the Ganges. There is no water even further upstream in places like Kanpur or Allahabad.

“What you see here in Varanasi is the flow of Yamuna river, which meets the Ganges in Allahabad.”

This is typical along the Ganges — the river being sucked dry by human intervention and then being rejuvenated again naturally.

Jaiswal points out that between Garh Mukteshwar near Meerut and Allahabad, no major rivers join the Ganges. “So there is very little water in this stretch,” says Jaiswal.

There are just a couple of rivers — Ramganaga, Kali Nadi — but they mostly carry toxic waste and sewage which only contaminates the river without bringing any fresh water. “Hence, Kanpur faces water shortage,” says Jaiswal who is also fighting to clean up Kanpur’s formidable leather industry with its hundreds of tanneries polluting the Ganges.

Yamuna goes through a similar process of drying out and revival too. It is almost dead when it leaves Delhi and revives again near Eetawah with rivers like Chambal and Betwa from Madhya Pradesh flow in. So, Yamuna carries a lot of water when it reaches Allahabad to meet the Ganges.

A dying and frail Ganges is revived again in Bihar, before Farakka, with several rivers running down from mountainous Nepal.

Dr Ravindra Kumar Sinha, vice-chancellor of Nalanda Open University, has travelled all along the Ganges. The biodiversity expert explained that there were several reasons for the dwindling water flow of the Ganges. These included loss of vegetation, including forests, in the Himalayas and river-banks.

“Now with the loss of those forests and humus, there is lot of soil erosion and flash floods during monsoon.”

At the same time there was an increasingly higher level of water extraction for irrigation, industries and household needs around the urban centres where population is increasing very fast leading to increased water use. All these have cumulative effects on declining water flow.

Both Dr Sinha and Jhunjhunwala point out that although some of the barrages and dams are installed for electricity generation, they do obstruct the natural flow of the rivers. Jhunjhunwala said hydropower dams finally discharge the water into the river. “But it hampers fish migration and siltation.”

According to the IUCN Red List, which is the global authority on the matter, 64 fish species in Bangladesh were marked as threatened in 2015.

Of them, nine species were said to be Critically Endangered, 30 species as Endangered and 25 as Vulnerable. 20 of these species typically inhabit the Padma.

But Dr Sinha does concede that water is being extracted from the Ganges at ever higher volumes through pumps and canals. “Put together these result in a decline of the Ganges flow.” He particularly mentions the Upper Ganges Canal, Middle Ganges Canal and Lower Ganges Canal near Narora.

The academic in Patna said despite barrages on the tributaries of Ganges in Bihar, both in Nepal and India, three river systems — Ghagra, Gandak and Kosi — flowing in from Nepal literally give Ganges a kiss of life and account for most of the water at Farakka.

India diverts more Ganges water for one last time at Farakka, up to 40,000 cusecs.

Although Farakka is considered the bane of all our woes in Bangladesh, this investigation found that it is only part of a much larger system. However, a group of Indian citizens decided to act on their belief.

Nine Indians, fishermen and environmentalists among them, from West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh sued their government for Rs13,000 crore (approximately $2 billion) in annual damages over the Farakka Barrage and other barrages.

The petition filed with the eight-year-old National Green Tribunal targeted the Indian government and other government agencies claiming Rs13,101 crore in annual compensation for the economic and geological damages due to dams and barrages.

The petition broke down the financial responsibility and held Inland Waterways Authority liable for damage of Rs 378 crore, Kolkata Port Trust for Rs 216 crore, Uttarakhand government's irrigation department for Rs 4,957 crore, Farakka barrage project for Rs 3,226 crore, Tehri Hydro Development Corporation for Rs 1,867 crore, Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam for Rs 719.4 crore, Jaiprakash Ventures Power for Rs 356.2 crore and Alakananda Hydro Power Company for Rs 1,381.4 crore annually.

This first-ever litigation relating to Farakka raises several points of concern including the lack of availability of ilish, a fish that is entwined with the Bengali culture, the floods of Bihar and affected livelihoods of millions. The petition points out that the Ganges being a source of livelihood of almost half a billion people provides for almost a tenth of humanity.

Hilsha catch trend in Bangladesh

Bharat Jhunjhunwala said the government was not willing to take strong action that the green tribunal is advocating. “So, the case is lingering without any impact.”

The petition had made it clear that not unlike their compatriots in Bangladesh, Indian citizens were also suffering for all kinds of human intervention along with the Ganges.