Rivers: holy waters

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Rivers: holy waters

We need healthy rivers for life on Earth to be healthy. But often the way we treat rivers shows we don’t really understand that. Dinyar Godrej writes.


Hindu women pray to the sun god by going into the waters of the Yamuna River. It is an important tributary of the Ganges in New Delhi, India. The water is covered in foam. The river is responsible for 70 per cent of the city’s water. But it is seriously polluted here. Recently city authorities are using blowers to push back the foam from the banks during festivals, so that people can take a holy bath. ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Carefully, I took off my slippers and stepped into the mud by the side of the river. Then I opened my plastic bag and poured part of my mother’s ashes with pink rose petals into the river. Hindu custom says this is the wish of people who cared for her so that she can now have peace.

But my mother was a Christian and not a very strong Christian later in her life. And she was always afraid of open water because she never learnt to swim. The peace was surely for the people left behind. We kept part of her ashes and buried them in her sister’s grave.

The holy touch of river water is a deep belief for Hindus. I saw that many times when I was a child in India. One day, I went on a school trip to the famous temple at Omkareshwar, an island in the Narmada. They brought me a bucket of water from the holy river to drink. When I saw the grey particles and very small creatures moving about inside the bucket, I decided not to drink it. As I waited for a ferry crossing at Patna, over the Ganges, the holiest river for Hindus, I saw crowds of Hindus bathing in the brown waters with rubbish around them.

I am not very religious but rivers are still very important to me. When I am feeling anxious, I walk by the Nieuwe Maas in my home city of Rotterdam. I watch the boats and feel a bit better. Most people understand that rivers are a ‘life support’.

Rivers, lakes, and swamps are about only 0.3 per cent of all the water on our planet (more than 90 per cent of all the water cannot be used by humans and many other species). But over 140,000 species and many more we don’t know about live in the freshwater. This includes 55 per cent of all fish species. A surprising 40 per cent of all the world’s species live or breed in the wetlands around the world's rivers. A quarter of the world’s people depend on rivers for drinking water. And about a quarter of food production depends on water from the rivers and the fertility of floodplains that feed us. Rivers truly are life, and that is why traditional cultures believe that they are sacred.

The River Ganges

But believing they are sacred is not enough. We humans are helping to choke and dry out these waters. Even the Ganges - Mother Goddess Ganga in India - is affected. Its basin is more than 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal. It is the most densely populated in the world and supports between 400 and 650 million people.

In its upper reaches of the Ganges there are dams. Intensive agriculture and other uses is taking away groundwater from the river and making its flow weaker, especially downstream. And then there’s pollution. At Kanpur, just one of the cities, environmental activist Rakesh Jaiswal says that 150 million litres of stinking untreated grey-green raw sewage empties into the water every day. Then there are the chemicals and other effluent from tanneries, hospitals, textile mills, and agriculture. Religious people offer about 1,000 tonnes of flowers every day to the river and the flowers are full of pesticides. And hundreds of groups try to get the plastic out. And then there are the human ashes and thousands of half-burned corpses put into the holy waters each day. There is even a plan to put turtles in the waters to eat the corpses. Then there is climate change – making glaciers at the river’s head move back, while monsoons and heatwaves affect the water levels.

Religious people believe the Ganges will heal itself. In fact, it is true that the river can clean itself, as it has viruses that eat bacteria. But today it also has antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and no virus could eat up all the chemicals in it.

Politicians, including the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often talk about cleaning up the Ganges. But people say that corruption has taken a big part of the $3 billion to spend on cleaning the river. When a lower court said the river is legally like a person, the Supreme Court said no, as it was not possible to enforced the law. This is true without good government organisation. There are many citizens’ projects, but they are not enough to make a difference. Real change will only come by stopping waste from entering the river and looking after the environment of its waters.


At Chattogram, Bangladesh, children in the water in the Karnaphuli. IHSAAN EESA/ALAMY

The way we think

The problem is the way the authorities thought about the use of river waters in the 20th century and the way they still think now. They believe the resources to help are there to exploit. It’s a way of thinking opposite to the beliefs of the Indigenous and traditional peoples of the world. Their livelihoods and cultural traditions are closely linked with rivers, and they know that balance and respect are necessary.

Most rivers today are polluted and diverted and threatened by human activity in the name of progress. Climate change is leading to more serious drought and floods. Overuse of their waters is drying them up. We put concrete over floodplains and make them lose their ability to recharge groundwater. And then we complain about the water scarcity that can result. A serious example of the way we think is the construction of big dams. Dams stop the free flow of two-thirds of the world’s rivers. The rivers without dams are mostly in places where very few people live.

In the US there was a mad construction of mega-dams in the early 20th century. Often no one thought about if they were needed or about the terrible environmental consequences. After the Second World War, the US State Department was in favour of dam technology around the world to build alliances and geopolitical influence against the Soviet Union. In newly independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru called dams ‘the temples of modern India’. Author Arundhati Roy writes, ‘Dam-building was the same as Nation-building. … They built new dams and new water systems, and they took control of small, traditional systems managed by village communities for thousands of years, and left them to become useless.’

Today we know that dams have ruined river ecosystems, especially migratory fish populations. The first dam built on a river can result in the loss of 40 per cent of water species.

Loss of habitat also affects land species. Planned projects in Guinea and Indonesia could have a terrible effect on endangered chimpanzees and orangutans.

Dam reservoirs hold back much of the silt a river normally deposits and stops the formation of fertile soil. They affect the seasonal flow of rivers, and some, like the Mekong with many big dams, affect rice growing and other crops. Water in reservoirs often lose more and more oxygen and it affects the quality when it is released into the river. Nutrients from fertilizers, animal farms, and other pollutants increase and cause toxins. And on it goes…

There are usually cases of broken promises and overspending – one study says an average of 96 per cent. There is corruption and often failure to achieve the levels of energy planned.

And what about the people in the way? In 2000, the World Commission on Dams said dams forced about 40-80 million people from their lands during the 20th century. Many dam refugees – mostly Indigenous, tribal, and peasant communities – have suffered economically, culturally, and psychologically. This continues today. Fernanda Purrán is a Mapuche activist living in the Biobío River basin, in Chile. There many hydroelectric projects have increased since the 1990s. Fernanda Purrán says, ‘Our communities and our culture have suffered damage and ecocide. They have taken away our right to be a free people, to be an Indigenous people, and to live our culture freely.’

We know about this sorry history and there are plans to take down dams - 239 smaller dams and weirs were removed in 2021 across Europe. Many projects are delayed or stopped because of possible environmental problems. But plans for new hydropower projects still continue for the Global South.


Collecting sand from the Ubangi River, Central African Republic, for use in the construction industry. A diver brings it up from the river bed in a bucket and a colleague pulls it up onto a boat. In other places, most sand extraction is mechanized. WILLIAM DANIELS/PANOS

Big plans

Why is this happening? There are a number of reasons. The idea of modernity is one. There are all kinds of environmentally crazy river engineering ‘solutions’, not just dams. But also the hydropower industry is pushing with big projects they say are clean and green. as it is losing ground to renewable energy. They are looking at funding through international organisations like the Clean Development Mechanism and post-Covid-19 recovery funds. Two Chinese state-owned corporations, Powerchina Resources and China Three Gorges Corp, are building half of all dams today. They are playing their role in the country’s push for economic power.

An example of the world of big hydropower is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Grand Inga project. It’s now the world’s biggest, if it happens, with a cost of about $80 billion, if the funding comes The project is to add five more dams to the two dams on the Congo River, the deepest river in the world. Siziwe Mota is the Africa Program director of International Rivers, an NGO that works to protect rivers and the rights of communities. She talks about the people already displaced by the dams. The dams need repairs and they are not working 100%. She says, ‘There is no compensation for the people, they live in a terrible, terrible situation, they don’t have energy, they don’t have jobs, they simply moved them out of the way.’ Inga 3, the proposed next stage, could displace 10,000 more.

Siziwe Mota tells me about the history of the project. It started with South Africa’s agreement with DRC to buy the generated power, while ‘90 per cent of the DRC’s citizens have no energy’. Then there was the search for partners and funds, with the World Bank pulling out in 2016 because of worries about governance. China Three Gorges and the big Spanish ACS were interested and later pulled out. Next was Australian mining-billionaire Andrew Forrest. His company Fortescue Futures Industry (FFI) plans to take on the project but it has no experience of dam building. Their idea is green hydrogen, that is hydrogen for use as fuel produced by splitting water using clean energy. Siziwe Mota thinks that FFI plans to export this green hydrogen to Europe and other international markets.

But the idea of producing green hydrogen is not possible because there is no way that hydropower is green. Siziwe Mota calls it ‘absolute nonsense’. This is because dams built in the tropics produce a lot of emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, like fossil fuel plants, as vegetation decomposes in the warmer waters of their reservoirs. In fact, in their first ten years, these hydropower projects could have emissions worse than coal-fired plants.

Then there is the Congo Plume, a 30,000-square-kilometre fan on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, produced by the river’s sediment. It’s rich in phytoplankton which absorbs carbon when they die. Blocking sediment with dams here is really not a good idea. There’s also a threat to the 700 fish species of the Congo River, including many found only here.

With still no funds and the president not interested in FFI’s plans, Grand Inga may not be making the progress they want. Siziwe Mota says, ‘Andrew Forrest is a Patron of Nature for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He is the same person who’s in mining and wants to construct this project!’



Toboyi Mokili, DRC community groups supported by International Rivers, have been protesting against the project for 10 years. Around the world river protesters are organizing community resistance, talking to governments, taking legal action, trying to change these terrible plans, and joining groups in other countries. The price to pay paid can be high; in the last twenty years over 100 activists were murdered because of protests against dams, including Berta Cáceres. She was the Honduran Indigenous activist killed in 2016. She told an interviewer in 2013, ‘I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the sacred river and I am separated from my children because of the threats. I cannot live in peace; I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But I refuse to leave.’

With environmental violence there is often violence against human beings. For example, the mining of sand from riverbanks, billions of tonnes of it a year. There is so much corruption with businesses, politicians, and police that they call them a ‘mafia’. In India, over 400 people have died since 2020 in situations around sandmining. Many fell into open pits or were run over by trucks, but there have also been killings of journalists and environmental activists. This violence happens along heavily mined rivers. Banks and riverbeds become unstable, affecting natural flows; the river starts changing its course, increasing the possibility of flooding, as in the state of Kerala. In coastal regions riverbanks begin to crumble and seawater comes in. Stripping sand also causes water levels to drop – a serious problem in a crowded country with water problems.

It is clear now that rivers need to flow as naturally as possible for life to be healthy. It is clear that they are a very valuable resource. It is clear they that they are over-exploited. To try to solve the problems we need to think about different demands: for energy, for agriculture, for healthy ecosystems, for the people along their banks, dependent on them. And more and more, conservation organizations are asking for an idea of governance that starts from the knowledge of Indigenous and traditional groups. They have lived closely with the waters that support them. They are usually the last people they talk to or they do not talk to them at all.

We need more reliable data on the world’s rivers, we need clear, open governance, we need international agreements, but most important we need humility and a true concern for the life that rivers support.



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)