Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia's Water Crisis

Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia's Water Crisis

Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia's Water Crisis

Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia's Water Crisis


Dirty, Sacred Rivers explores South Asia's increasingly urgent water crisis, taking readers on a journey through North India, Nepal and Bangladesh, from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal. The book shows how rivers, traditionally revered by the people of the Indian subcontinent, have in recentdecades deteriorated dramatically due to economic progress and gross mismanagement. Dams and ill-advised embankments strangle the Ganges and its sacred tributaries. Rivers have become sewage channels for a burgeoning population.

To tell the story of this enormous river basin, environmental journalist Cheryl Colopy treks to high mountain glaciers with hydrologists; bumps around the rough embankments of India's poorest state in a jeep with social workers; and takes a boat excursion through the Sundarbans, the mangrove forestsat the end of the Ganges watershed.

She lingers in key places and hot spots in the debate over water: the megacity Delhi, a paradigm of water mismanagement; Bihar, India's poorest, most crime-ridden state, thanks largely to the blunders of engineers who tried to tame powerful Himalayan rivers with embankments but instead createdannual floods; and Kathmandu, the home of one of the most elegant and ancient traditional water systems on the subcontinent, now the site of a water-development boondoggle.

Colopy's vivid first-person narrative brings exotic places and complex issues to life, introducing the reader to a memorable cast of characters, ranging from the most humble members of South Asian society to engineers and former ministers. Here we find real-life heroes, bucking current trends,trying to find rational ways to manage rivers and water. They are reviving ingenious methods of water management that thrived for centuries in South Asia and may point the way to water sustainability and healthy rivers.


Red, hand-painted letters in Devanagari script inscribed on a yellow background tell visitors, in Hindi, “This water is as pure as the water from Ganga. Please keep it clean.” The sign is painted on a wall near the entrance to a spring housed in a small temple in the Indian town of Almora. A shiva lingam painted red sits atop the tile roof that shelters a rectangular pool of clear water, embraced on three sides by white stucco walls below street level. Most of the people who come to this spring in the Himalayan foothills of eastern Uttarakhand obediently remove their shoes before descending the stairway to the stone pool.

The spring, called a nola in this part of India, is several hundred years old, locals say. Until fairly recently all the water used in this area came from hundreds of springs; some are small ponds like this one, others are spouts or dhara from which water flows. Now many of the springs are contaminated by trash and sewage. New construction destroyed some of them or blocked the sources that fed them.

The river that flows at the bottom of the valley below Almora does not have enough water both to support the region’s agriculture and to supply household water for the city of more than forty thousand, where many people are now accustomed to water piped into their homes. Besides, it’s expensive to pump water uphill into the town. Almora will soon have a full-blown water crisis. Already people go to the old springs that are still functioning. They need water because the supply in the city pipes sometimes dwindles; and many still prefer the taste and coldness of the spring water and believe it’s good for their health.

The nola and dhara of Almora suggest some of the contradictions in South Asia’s growing water crisis. Traditional systems have been neglected or abandoned, even abused, in favor of the promised convenience of modern ones. But those twentieth-century replacements have sometimes turned out to be unreliable and have left many people unserved. The population grows, construction continues, weather is uncertain, rivers and wells run dry, electricity for pumping is sporadic and expensive. And people have forgotten how to protect their water. The ponds that caught rain and replenished groundwater to feed the old springs were once carefully husbanded here in Uttarakhand. Now they are turned into playing fields or worse.

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