NEW DELHI, INDIA, 2019

Foam discharged by an industrial plant into the Yamuna river, a tributary of the Ganges held sacred by Hindus

Denton© Bryan Denton / The New York Times


Numerous religious ceremonies, like funeral rites and purifying ablutions, take place in the waters of India's two main sacred rivers, the Yamuna and the Ganges. But these two rivers are now among the most polluted in the world because of the discharge of household sewage and agricultural and industrial waste on a mass scale.
In the first case, the problem is caused by lack of sewage treatment facilities, as proven by the presence of pathogenic microorganisms, which increase the risk of infection via faecal-oral transmission when bathing in the waters. In the second instance, the industries most responsible for this kind of pollution are sugar refineries, distilleries, paper mills and leather tanneries. The operations of tanneries, among the most polluting industries in the world, are increasing because of the growing demand for products by the Western clothing giants. Fast fashion is one of the top guilty parties.
In the city of Kanpur, the main leather export hub, the ecosystem of the Ganges has been completely devastated, turning the river into an open-air sewer. Furthermore, the health of the population has been endangered by chrome discharged into river waters, which are then used for agricultural irrigation or even as drinking water. Added to all this is a generalised, dreadful national water management strategy, which has seen multiple investments supporting the sugar cane industry, one of the crops with the highest water consumption. In this country, "decades of myopic government policies", wrote the New York Times, "are hitting millions of defenceless people in the era of climate disasters”, which manifest here with the catastrophic alternation of drought and floods.

Luca Ferrari