Rivers: holy waters

We need thriving rivers in order for life on Earth to flourish. But often how we treat them shows little understanding of this basic principle. Dinyar Godrej ventures into the maelstrom.

Hindu women offer prayers to the sun god by venturing into the foam-coated waters of the Yamuna River (a major tributary of the Ganges) in New Delhi, India. The river is responsible for 70 per cent of the city’s water supply but is severely polluted at this stretch. Recently city authorities have taken to deploying blowers to push back the foam from the banks during festivals, so that the faithful can take a holy dip. ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Gingerly, I took my feet out of my slippers and felt them squelch into the riverside mud. Then, leaning over into the flow as far as I could, I upended the plastic bag so that its contents tipped out. Thus a part of my mother’s ashes landed into the river (along with a flutter of pink rose petals), according to Hindu custom, satisfying the wish of those who had cared for her that her soul would now gain peace.

The irony of this ritual was not lost on me – my mother was a Christian (though shaky in her belief later in life) and had always had a great fear of open water due to never having learnt to swim. What peace the immersion of her ashes brought was surely for those left behind. We kept a portion of her remains and buried them in her sister’s grave.

The sanctifying touch of river waters is a belief that runs deep in Hindu spirituality. I encountered it many times during my childhood in India. Going on a school trip to the famous temple at Omkareshwar, an island in the Narmada, I remember being brought a bucket of water straight from the holy river to drink. Eyeing the greyish particles and minuscule creatures moving about inside I chose to go thirsty. Awaiting a ferry crossing at Patna, over the holiest of rivers for Hindus, the Ganges, I witnessed throngs of devotees taking a dip in its brown waters, fringed with litter.

Even for someone like me, not inclined to religious devotion, there remains a strong, primitive pull associated with rivers. In times of mental agitation I find myself walking by the Nieuwe Maas in my home city of Rotterdam, watching the tugs and leisure boats move across it, and feeling my mind’s knots unravel a little.

Anyone who has witnessed the communion of all forms of life at the river bank, in a nature documentary or first-hand, will realize why the function of rivers can best be described as ‘life support’.

Available surface freshwater (rivers, lakes and swamps) is only an estimated 0.3 per cent of all the water on our planet, more than 99 per cent of which is unusable by humans and numerous other species. Yet it forms the habitat for over 140,000 described species (and however many more as yet unrecorded), including 55 per cent of all fish species. Move into the wetlands associated with the world’s rivers and a staggering 40 per cent of all the world’s species either live or breed there. As for humans, a quarter of the world’s people depend on rivers for that most basic necessity, drinking water. A similar proportion of food production is reliant on irrigation from this source – to say nothing of the renowned fertility of floodplains that are our breadbaskets. Rivers truly are life, not just in any sentimental sense, and that is why traditional cultures have viewed them as sacred.

Dubious offerings

Yet reverence is not enough. A confluence of factors involving human influence is choking and drying out these arteries. Even the Ganges, known affectionately as Ganga Mata in India (or Mother Goddess Ganga), is not immune. Its basin (the area it drains through), a stretch of more than 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, is the most densely populated in the world, supporting between 400 and 650 million people depending on different estimates. 

In its upper reaches the Ganges faces a series of blocks by dams. Intensive agriculture (among other uses) is robbing the river of groundwater and weakening its flow, especially downstream. And then there’s pollution. At Kanpur, just one urban node on its journey, according to environmental activist Rakesh Jaiswal 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 agricultural runoff along the way. Even the estimated 1,000 tonnes of flowers offered daily to the river by the devout leach pesticides. Plastic debris floats along, challenging the hundreds of groups trying to fish it back out. And then there are the human ashes and half-burned corpses in their thousands, consigned to the holy waters each day. There is even a project to deploy flesh-eating turtles to tackle the latter. To top it all, climate change has been doing its thing – causing glaciers at the river’s head to retreat, while unpredictable monsoons and heatwaves also take their toll on water levels.

Rivers truly are life, not just in any sentimental sense, and that is why traditional cultures have viewed them as sacred

For the faithful, the Ganga will heal itself – indeed there is some foundation to the belief in its self-purifying properties, as the river has been known historically to host bacteria-munching viruses. But today it is also a brew of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and no virus could tackle the chemical effluents befouling it.

Cleaning up the Ganga is a beloved mantra of politicians – and the current hardline Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no different. But a significant chunk of what has been spent of the $3 billion budget pledged to the task has allegedly been lost to corruption. When a lower court granted the river ‘legal personhood’ status, the Supreme Court reversed the decision as unenforceable. True, as without good governance, such protection remains gestural. Citizens’ projects have been springing up to do their bit in myriad ways, but they can barely scratch the surface considering the scale of the task. Real change will only come by preventing waste from entering the river in the first place and environmentally informed stewardship of its waters.

At Chattogram, Bangladesh, kids take to the water in the Karnaphuli as if it were a part of them. IHSAAN EESA/ALAMY

Entitled mindset

Far from this vision, a sense of mastery came to dominate thinking about the use of river waters in the 20th century and often still persists among the powers that be. The trouble with resources that sustain us is the tendency to view them as being there to be exploited, a goose-that-lays-golden-eggs scenario. It’s a mindset usually completely at odds with the Indigenous and traditional peoples of the world whose livelihoods and cultural traditions are most intricately enmeshed with rivers, and who know that balance and respect are key.

Polluted, diverted, fragmented, most rivers today are threatened by human activity in the name of progress. Climate change is leading to more extreme drought and floods; overuse of their waters drying them up. We concrete over floodplains making them lose their ability to recharge groundwater (which feeds into rivers), and then bemoan the water scarcity that can result. A particularly pernicious symptom of this worldview has been the construction of big dams which have chopped up the flow of two-thirds of the world’s rivers. Those that remain free-flowing are mainly in areas of sparse human habitation.

Legions of dam refugees - largely Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities - have been economically, culturally and psychologically devastated

In the US a great frenzy of riverine replumbing via mega-dams took place in the early 20th century, often with little consideration for whether they were actually needed, let alone for their devastating environmental consequences. After the Second World War, dam technology was actively promoted around the world by the US State Department in order to build alliances and maintain geopolitical influence against the Soviet Union. In newly independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru called dams ‘the temples of modern India’. As author Arundhati Roy puts it: ‘Dam-building grew to be equated with Nation-building. …Not only did they build new dams and new irrigation systems, they took control of small, traditional systems that had been managed by village communities for thousands of years, and allowed them to atrophy.’

Today the fallout of our dammed rivers is much better known. Dams have devastated river ecosystems, particularly migratory fish populations. The first dam to be constructed on a previously free-flowing river can result in the loss of 40 per cent of aquatic species.

Beyond the waterfront, land species are affected by habitat disruption too – proposed projects in Guinea and Indonesia could be devastating for endangered chimpanzees and orangutans.

Dam reservoirs hold back much of the silt a river would normally deposit along its course, depriving the basin of the formation of fertile soil. They affect the seasonal pulse and flow of rivers, and some, like the Mekong, that have multiple major dams have become severely depleted in their lower courses, affecting rice growing and other crops. Waters in reservoirs often become increasingly deoxygenated affecting overall quality when released into the river. Nutrients from fertilizers, animal farm runoffs and other pollutants pile up and cause toxic algal blooms. And on it goes… No wonder that Roy called dams 20th century ‘emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival’.

On the delivery front it’s usually a case of broken promises: time-scales stretch out, the usual gigantic costs are overrun (by an average of 96 per cent according to one study), they are sites of corruption and profiteering and often fail to achieve the aimed for levels of energy generation.

And what of the people in the way? In 2000, when the World Commission on Dams disbanded, it said dams had forced some 40-80 million people from their lands during the course of the 20th century, adding: ‘Legions of dam refugees – largely Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities – have been economically, culturally and psychologically devastated.’ It’s a devastation that continues. Fernanda Purrán, a Mapuche activist living in the Biobío River basin, Chile, where a series of hydroelectric projects have gone up since the 1990s, made this observation: ‘We have been enduring the damage and ecocide… and the suffering that our communities and our culture have experienced. They have taken away our right to be a free people, to be an Indigenous people, with the ability to live our worldview and our culture freely.’

Despite this widely known and sorry history, despite active movements to decommission and take down existing dams (239 smaller scale dams and weirs were removed in 2021 across Europe), despite project after project delayed or ultimately halted due to potential environmental impacts, new hydropower projects continue to be proposed for the Global South.

Collecting sand from the Ubangi River, Central African Republic, for use in the construction industry. A diver has to scoop it up from the river bed into a bucket for it to be pulled up by a colleague on the boat. Most sand extraction elsewhere is mechanized and operates on a far larger scale. WILLIAM DANIELS/PANOS

Grand designs

Why is this happening? An interesting mix of factors is at play. The lure of the prestige project in national narratives cannot be underestimated – all kinds of environmentally crazy river engineering ‘solutions’, not just dams, keeping being proposed. They feed into a spurious narrative of modernity. But there is also an active push by the hydropower industry, which is losing ground to other renewables, to posit big projects as clean and green. They’ve got one eye on lucrative sources of funding through international pathways such as the Clean Development Mechanism; the other is on a share of post-Covid-19 recovery funds. Two Chinese state-owned corporations, Powerchina Resources and China Three Gorges Corp, account for half of all dams under construction today, playing their role in the country’s push for economic dominance through the Belt and Road Initiative.7

To make concrete the issues at play around big hydropower, consider the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Grand Inga project. It’s currently the world’s most ambitious (if it gets going), with an estimated total bill of $80 billion (if funding gets raised), to expand the current two dams on the mighty Congo River, the deepest in the world, by a further five.

I speak with Siziwe Mota, the Africa Program director of International Rivers, an NGO that works to protect rivers and the rights of communities dependant on them. She points to the people already displaced by the extant dams that are currently in disrepair and performing below capacity: ‘People have not been compensated, they live in dire, dire straits, they don’t have access to energy, they don’t have jobs, they were literally moved [out of the way].’ Inga 3, the proposed next stage, could displace 10,000 more.

Mota outlines the chequered history of the scheme, starting with South Africa’s agreement with DRC to purchase the generated power, while ‘90 per cent of the DRC’s citizens lack energy access’. Then the scramble for partners and funds, with the World Bank pulling out in 2016 due to governance concerns, China Three Gorges and the Spanish giant ACS entering the fray as a consortium and subsequently withdrawing. The new kid on the block is Australian mining-billionaire Andrew Forrest, whose company Fortescue Futures Industry (FFI) aims to take on the project (and is already doing ‘pre-consultation’ in the community) despite having ‘no previous expertise in dam building’. Their vision revolves around the current buzz about green hydrogen, that is hydrogen for use as fuel produced by splitting water using clean energy. Mota thinks that FFI would aim to export this green hydrogen to European and other international markets.

But in this instance the notion of producing green hydrogen is a non-starter because there is no way that hydropower, renewable though it may be, can be considered green. Mota calls it ‘absolute nonsense’. This is because dams built in the tropics produce vast emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, equivalent to fossil fuel plants, as vegetation decomposes in the warmer waters of their reservoirs. Indeed, in their first decade, such hydropower projects could have emissions that are worse than coal-fired plants.

Then there is the small matter of 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 sequester carbon when they die, making it a carbon sink of global importance. Blocking sediment with dams here is really not a bright idea. There’s also a threat to the 700 fish species of the Congo River, including several found here and nowhere else.7

With funds still to be drummed up and the presidency currently unresponsive to FFI’s overtures, plans for furthering Grand Inga may not be as solid as the corporation would like them to be. Mota cannot help but point out a juicy irony: ‘Andrew Forrest is a Patron of Nature for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is the very same person who’s in mining and wants to go ahead and construct this project. I don’t know how he reconciles the work he does with his position as Patron of Nature.’

A data deep-dive on the arteries of life. 
Click here for a full-sized fact spread.


Toboyi Mokili, a coalition of DRC community groups supported by International Rivers, have been pushing back against the proposed project for 10 years. The time-scale is somewhat typical of such struggles, but affected communities cannot go quietly when so much is at stake. Around the world river defenders are organizing community resistance, petitioning governments, filing legal suits, engaging with powerful interests to try and change disastrous plans, and, increasingly, joining hands with similar struggles in other countries to share knowledge and widen the circle of concern. The price to be paid can be high; in the last two decades over 100 activists were murdered for their involvement in campaigns against dams, including Berta Cáceres, the Honduran Indigenous activist who was killed in 2016 after years of vicious intimidation. 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 go into exile.’

Environmental violence often translates into violence against human beings. Take the under-reported situation of mining sand from riverbanks and beds, billions of tonnes of it a year, which is so pervaded with skullduggery that the nexus of business interests, politicians and police taking their cut are often referred to as a ‘mafia’. In India, over 400 people have died since 2020 in incidents related to sandmining – many in accidents such as falling into open pits or being run over by trucks, but there have also been killings of journalists and environmental activists. The wider violence is what happens along the courses of heavily mined rivers. Banks and riverbeds get destabilized, affecting natural flows; the river starts changing its course, increasing the likelihood of flooding, as experienced in the state of Kerala. In coastal regions riverbanks begin to crumble and seawater rushes in. Stripping sand also causes water tables to drop – a serious problem in a populous water-stressed country.

By now it is evident that rivers need to flow in as natural a form as possible in order for life to flourish. That they are a precious resource is unquestionable; that they are over-exploited even less in doubt. To even attempt to address the problems that beset them requires a balancing act between different demands: for energy, for agriculture, for healthy ecosystems, for the people along their banks who are utterly dependent on them. And, increasingly, river advocacy and other conservation organizations are urging a vision of governance that starts from the deep knowledge of Indigenous and traditional groups who have lived symbiotically with the waters that sustain them. They are usually the last participants invited to the table, if at all.

We need more reliable, comparable data on the world’s rivers, we need transparent, participatory governance, we need international agreements on how they are treated and the sharing of their waters, but above all we need these things to be informed by humility and a true reverence for the life that rivers sustain.

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