Representative image of the Ganga. Photo: Balaji Srinivasan/Unsplash
- The UN listed the ‘Namami Gange’ project to clean up the Ganga river as one of the world’s ten “pioneering” initiatives that are successfully restoring the natural world.
- Water experts are not impressed by the UN’s “recognition”, pointing out that the agency has not provided details about the criteria used to put together the list.
- Moreover, several studies conducted over the past few years have shown that the quality of water in the Ganga remains poor despite several schemes to tackle the issue.
Kochi: The United Nations on December 13 listed the Union government’s ‘Namami Gange’ project – which aims to clean up the polluted Ganga river – as one of the world’s ten “pioneering” initiatives that are successfully restoring the natural world.
The “recognition” comes at a time when several studies, conducted over the past few years, have shown that the quality of water in the Ganga is still poor, and leaves much to be desired, despite several government schemes and measures to tackle this issue.
Water experts are not impressed by the UN’s “recognition” of the restoration project.
They pointed out that the UN has not provided details about the criteria used to put together the list. Moreover, the cleaning of the Ganga, in recent times, has gone hand-in-hand with several other projects – such as the waterways project – that are destroying the river, they said.
On December 13, at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) that is ongoing at Montreal, Canada, the UN highlighted 10 “ground-breaking efforts” across the world for their role in nature restoration.
These include the Trinational Atlantic Forest Pact, wherein Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay aim to restore 15 million hectares of degraded forests through a cross-border collaboration; the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative in Kazakhstan that has been restoring the steppe, semi-desert and desert ecosystems in the area which is home to the threatened saiga antelope since 2005; and the Abu Dhabi Marine Restoration project that aims to protect the seagrass meadows along the coasts of the United Arab Emirates to conserve the dugong, a large marine mammal that is found in the waters here.
Though the UN has not mentioned the criteria based on which the projects were chosen, they were selected under the banner of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global movement coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as per the UN.
It has also declared these initiatives as “World Restoration Flagships”, and the projects are eligible to receive UN-backed promotion, advice or funding.
India’s ‘Namami Gange’ project – which aims to decrease pollution in the Ganga river, and conserve and rejuvenate it – is also one of the initiatives that has made it to the UN list.
The Ganga is India’s longest river, totalling a length of 2,525 kilometre across 11 states, of which 1,000 km flows through the state of Uttar Pradesh alone. Water pollution has long been a concern for the Ganga, due to several factors including the inflow of both sewage and industrial effluents into the river.
For instance, as per a 2020 government estimate, 2,953 million litres of sewage is generated by 97 towns, and flows into the main stem of the Ganga everyday.
Installing sewage treatment infrastructure and monitoring industrial effluents are among the many activities undertaken by the government as part of the ‘Namami Gange’ programme. Other initiatives include river surface cleaning, biodiversity conservation, and creating riverfront development.
The project was founded in 2014 under the National Mission for Clean Ganga, a programme constituted under the Ministry of Jal Shakti’s department of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation.
“Launched in 2014, the government-led ‘Namami Gange’ initiative is rejuvenating, protecting and conserving the Ganges and its tributaries, reforesting parts of the Ganges basin and promoting sustainable farming,” the UN announcement read. “It also aims to revive key wildlife species, including river dolphins, softshell turtles, otters, and the hilsa shad fish.”
It added that the government has invested up to $4.25 billion in the project so far, and the initiative has restored 1,500 km of the river till date. “Additionally, there has been 30,000 hectares of afforestation so far, with a 2030 goal of 134,000 hectares,” it said.
Experts not convinced
Unfortunately, there is no information on the UNEP website about the process and criteria that were used to select these flagship initiatives and whether any credible, independent process was followed, said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
He added that the “recognition” also raises questions because all available information shows that efforts towards rejuvenating the Ganga goes together with river destruction like the waterways project and the dredging of the Ganga.
A part of the river – from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal – is a national waterway (National Waterway 1). This also includes a stretch in Bihar, which is protected as the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary.
A 2019 study found that the high vessel traffic that occurs in the waterway is stressing the Gangetic river dolphin, India’s national aquatic animal. Meanwhile, dredging of the river to maintain the waterway – which increases turbidity and can release toxic metals into the water – continues. There has been no decision on whether the development work for the waterway even requires an environmental clearance.
Moreover, efforts to clean up the Ganga began as early as in the 1980s, and the latest UN “recognition” of the ‘Namami Gange’ project makes it appear that this alone has brought about the change, said Thakkar. For instance, the first Ganga Action Plan, which implemented 260 schemes on the main stem of the Ganga, was initiated in 1985.
Similarly, the National Ganga River Basin Authority, under which the ‘Mission Clean Ganga’ was initiated, came into force in 2009 – during the United Progressive Alliance-led government, said Thakkar.
Its objectives involved addressing wastewater management, solid waste management, industrial pollution, and river front development along the Ganga. The Authority was dissolved in 2016, after the Union government constituted the National Ganga Council.
Despite the implementation of several schemes and measures, the Ganga continues to be polluted. It is more polluted now than before, and the ‘Namami Gange’ programme is just a “mere beautification effort”, Rajendra Singh, environmentalist and water expert had told the Indian Express in 2019.
A 2022 research paper that analysed studies pertaining to pollution in the river found that “all is not well and the quality of Ganga is getting worse day by day”. It identified the lack of implementation of laws as a major problem.
“Despite spending several million rupees under different clean-up plans, there has been little improvement in the condition of the river,” a 2019 study noted.
Sewage treatment plants along the Ganga have a history of non-compliance, a report by the Central Pollution Control Board to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s apex green court, said in 2016.
Nearly 50% of the untreated sewage is still being discharged into the river, the NGT noted in July this year. It also observed that the National Mission for Clean Ganga does not appear to be in a position to take stringent measures against non-compliance.
The NGT has also pulled up state authorities for not taking adequate measures to ensure compliance. In September, the tribunal ordered the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board to ensure that the delay in installing a common effluent treatment plant in Kanpur be addressed immediately as tanneries were releasing pollutants in the area.
Studies also show that more efforts are required to clean the Ganga. In July this year, a study by scientists at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, found that the lower stretches of the river are the most polluted, reported The Diplomat. Over the years, the Ganga has also been cut into pieces by dams and barrages, which have affected the flow of the river.
The UN says that the progress of the 10 ‘World Restoration Flagships’, including the ‘Namami Gange’ programme, will be “transparently monitored through the Framework for Ecosystem Restoration Monitoring, the UN Decade’s platform for keeping a track of global restoration efforts”, noted Thakkar.
“We hope it is independent of the official or funding agencies and peopled by those who have a track record of taking an independent stand.”