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Saving the "Mother of India"

Berkeley Technology May Clean Up Ganges River

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted November 18, 1998

This pipe dumps raw sewage into the Ganges near a religious bathing area. The laundry drying on the steps has been washed in the river water near the outfall pipe.

Each morning Veer Bhadra Mishra, mahant or head of the Sankat Mochan Temple, takes a holy dip in the Ganges, the "Mother of India" that flows through the holy city of Varanasi.

Yet as professor of civil engineering at Banaras Hindu University, he knows that something is not right with the river -- that he and the 60,000 other Hindus who bathe in and drink its waters each day risk serious illness.

Raw sewage dumps into the Ganges at many points as it winds along the city. The river's fecal bacteria levels far exceed what is considered safe for swimming, let alone drinking. In addition, partially cremated bodies are launched into the river daily from funeral pyres along the ghats (steps) that line the bank.

Last week Mishra visited campus to discuss a solution he has proposed to save the river, and to praise environmental engineers William Oswald and Bailey Green, whose simple wastewater treatment technology he hopes to adopt.

Dressed in a handsome brown and beigedhoti, the 59-year-old Mishra laid out the problem during the Energy and Resource Group Colloquium in Sibley Auditorium. He bemoaned India's bureacracy for obstructing efforts he began in 1982, when he started a foundation to publicize the problem and to urge the government to take action.

Since then the government has wasted more than $100 million on failed projects: sewage treatment plants that shut down when the electricity fails -- a frequent occurrence -- and sewage pumping stations that can handle only part of the daily sewage effluent, and which also stop during electrical outages.

In 1994 Mishra, an hydraulic engineer, happened upon a solution that Oswald developed and has been promoting for decades. Called Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems (AIWPS), these natural systems consist of a series of ponds that use algae to oxygenate the water so that common bacteria can break down and disinfect the waste. No sludge remains for disposal and energy is not wasted in mechanical aeration.

Together Mishra, Oswald and Green developed a proposal for creating an AIWPS facility downstream of Varanasi, plus an interceptor sewer paralleling the Ganges to channel waste directly to the plant. Berkeley geologist James Kirchner even visited the river to make sure the ponds would not alter the Ganges' course. The outflow from the pond would be a million-fold cleaner than the water today, fit for the "holy dip" so important to devout Hindus.

Despite Mishra's enthusiasm, the government has yet to abandon the failed activated sludge plants in favor of low-tech ponds. He hopes international pressure will help. A lengthy article about the project in The New Yorker magazine in January has already started people talking, he said.

The local population is eager, though, especially villagers downstream near the planned site of the stabilization ponds.

"Such a welcome the people gave Dr. Green and Professor Oswald when they visited the village," Mishra laughed. "They filled them with garlands."

Mishra's blend of culture, tradition and faith with science and technology could be what ultimately saves the Ganges.

"There is a saying that the Ganges grants us salvation," Mishra said. "This culture will end if the people stop going to the river, and if the culture dies the tradition dies, and the faith dies."


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