Saving Ganga will Require Planning and Partnership

December 23, 2014

Onno Ruhl, World Bank India Country Director Hindustan Times

The Ganga is India's most important river. The sprawling basin covers more than 860,000 square kilometres in India alone and is home to around 600 million Indians, close to half the national population. The basin generates approximately 40% of the country's GDP and is a valuable environmental and economic resource for India. The Ganga flows from its glacial sources in the Himalayas and courses through five major states before draining through the Sundarbans--the largest mangrove system in the world--into the swirling waters of the Bay of Bengal.

Along its 2,500 km journey, the river enriches huge swathes of agricultural land and sustains 50 major Indian cities and hundreds of smaller towns. Fast-flowing tributaries in its elevated upper reaches have the potential to ease India's power shortages, and in the plains, the river has the potential to become an arterial waterway ferrying goods and people across long distances.

But the Ganga--long an icon of India's ancient civilisation and a centerpiece in its prosperity--is flailing. Heavy pollution loads, over-abstraction in the lean season (primarily for irrigation), competing water demands and diversions and obstructions on the mainstem and tributaries have wreaked havoc on the health of the river and its ability to nourish the millions of people who live and work in the basin. Many of those dependent on the river are amongst India's poorest, with more than 200 million people in the basin living below the poverty line.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal are not just part of the Ganga basin but also the heartland of India's most pressing socio-economic and developmental challenges. Today, despite its great potential to be an engine of economic growth, the Ganga is a symbol of many of India's modern problems; the basin should be the focus for addressing India's economic and social challenges.

India needs to develop solutions in ways that do not compromise river health. This includes improving the manner in which critical economic decisions and activities in the basin are undertaken--from improved irrigation and on-farm practices to careful site selection and environment management for hydropower development, and sustainable inland navigation. The challenge is immense and restoring river health will take an enormous pooling of efforts by a broad range of stakeholders over many years. Actions taken to balance environmental and economic outcomes in the Ganga today can pave the way for India to manage its growth in a sustainable manner.

The recent focus on the river and the inclusion of Ganga rejuvenation as an explicit mandate of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation bodes well. So does the explicit multi-sectoral approach taken to support development and implementation of the newly formulated Namami Gange Programme. Reconstitution of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) in September to enable the minister to call more frequent decision meetings and the many inter-ministerial working groups created to examine issues and develop plans across the quality and quantity spectrum is noteworthy.

River rejuvenation should depend in part on urban renewal, as the cities and major towns generate close to 3 billion litre of sewage and 14,000 metric tonne of solid waste every day, with most reaching the river untreated. Patna, for instance, is a city of the size of Rome with three million people and no fully functioning sewage treatment plant (STP). And yet, new pollution-management infrastructure alone will not help. Past clean-up efforts have shown that the urban local bodies that hold stewardship of these assets should be strengthened with skills and resources to operate and maintain modern infrastructure.

STPs lie inactive because financially constrained urban local bodies are unable to pay for the electricity needed to run them, and sewage networks carry only a fraction of the design load because last-mile connections to individual households have not been made. The sustainability of investments depends as much on innovative models of financing and implementation as on programmes of urban local body capacity-building. If these can be combined, the cities of the Ganga basin could well become India's first "smart cities".

However, the key is ensuring that strategic basin planning, not just investments and projects, is at the heart of the overall rejuvenation agenda. The global experience with mighty rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine, the Elbe and the Nile is that strong planning organisations capable of generating basin-scale knowledge, identifying hotspots, prioritising investments and advising on policy are central to rejuvenating rivers.

The creation of a vibrant apex-level NGRBA and its associated operational-level National Mission for Clean Ganga, which the World Bank has been supporting through its long-standing engagement on the Ganga, is an important step in this direction. Going forward, under the oversight of an empowered NGRBA, it will be important to establish a well-resourced, evidence-based and participatory strategic basin planning process that can guide and balance both river rejuvenation and economic development. 

Such a strategic basin planning process requires several elements. 

First, the government should establish an ongoing process of engagement with key stakeholders. Initial engagement should focus on the development of a shared vision for the basin, with the identification of development opportunities that are compatible with river rejuvenation. 

Second, a partnership approach should be adopted to support Indian technical organisations in accessing the wide international experience with strategic basin planning. Third, a comprehensive audit of all pollution sources (both point and non-point) and pollution loads should be done, in order to determine realistic and time-bound pollution reduction targets. It is important to accept that not all pollution can be stopped immediately. 

Fourth, clear river health objectives, linked to water quality targets and environmental flow targets, should be established so governments and stakeholders can track progress and analyse scenarios for alternative options for water allocation, pollution control and environmental flows. 

Fifth, a centralised--and publicly accessible--basin information system should be established that combines data from monitoring, scenario modelling and other activities. Finally, a commitment to public annual reporting of river health needs to be made to ensure accountability and inform public debate.

This process will enable India to arrive at a shared definition of the pollution problem and its multiple sources, and facilitate agreement on what a clean and healthy Ganga would look like. For instance, what levels of pollution, sediment and flow are acceptable, and by when should these be achieved? What quantum of derived benefits (such as human health, industrial production and off-farm employment) is possible and by when? Which investments should be targeted first and what benefits would they deliver?

The adoption of a strategic basin planning approach would enable India to answer these questions, reverse the environmental degradation of the Ganga and promote the economic prosperity of the basin and her inhabitants.

With the recent prominence given to river rejuvenation and urban renewal, the time for strategic basin planning is now.

This opinion piece first appeared in Hindustan Times on 20th December, 2014.