Israel Offering to Help Clean Up India's Filthy Ganges River

The holy river streams from the Himalayas, passing through 29 Indian cities and picking up more contaminants in each.

Hindu devotee kneels from an anchored boat to collect water from the river Ganges
Hindu devotee kneels from an anchored boat to collect water from the river Ganges. AP

Israeli cleantech might yet come to the rescue of the sacred but polluted goddess river Ganges, an Israeli envoy told the Indian press Sunday. An Israeli delegation of water experts, from government and private enterprise, has been invited to visit India next week to meet with officials and presumably to gain a first-hand impression of the problem - which is vast.

The Ganges, or Ganga, is the biggest river in India. Although it provides water to more than a third of India's vast population and is holy to Hindus, it is considered to be the fifth most polluted river in the world. One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election vows was to clean up the river, which sports contaminants from industrial waste to dead bodies.

There's even a budget in place for the three-year "Namami Ganga" project, which Modi announced last year: in February, the prime minister even sold a special suit he had made for himself, for about $700,000, to finance the river cleanup.

One aspect Israel can't help solve is the growing population, and growing need for fresh water. During the dry season, the water supply to the Ganges has been diminishing because water feeding the river is being used upstream for irrigation and other purposes. Nor can Israel stop the 29 cities through which the Ganges flows from using the river to do laundry and dump waste.

Boys walking through garbage as pigs bathe in mud on the banks of the Ganges, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.(Bloomberg)

But the bigger problem may be more treatable: the vast amounts of industrial contaminants being poured untreated into the sacred waters. Chromium levels, to name but one toxin in the water, are about 70 times the recommended maximum level. And that's just one poison in the Ganges water that can fatally compromise the immune system. Israeli companies have a host of technologies to treat water contamination, as well as innovations to offer in the area of water management and distribution services.

The Ganges is also home to an extremely rare animal – the Ganges River dolphin, which is now extinct in the rest of its range. Just over a thousand of the giant freshwater dolphins are believed to remain, for all the Indian government declaring it "National Aquatic Animal" in 2009. Wildlife experts believe its imminent extinction is less because of the dangers of the water and more because their movement up and down the river has been frustrated by dams.

Construction stalls on one of 200 proposed dams along the Ganges while the government mulls environmental - and religious - concerns. (Bloomberg)

Nor has the sludge, or the warnings by health authorities that the water contains dangerous germs, deterred the Hindu faithful from immersing themselves in the river, which they revere as a goddess. The Ganges water serves in numerous rituals, and then once a year, in May or June, Hindus mark the "avatarana" - the descent of the sacred Ganges from heaven to earth (though its physical origin is the Himalayas). Immersion in the river is supposed to rid the worshipper of sin, though it may also gain him anything from dysentery to cholera en route.

India has long been aware of the need to clean up its befouled beloved river, but previous projects have come to nothing, which the Indian press has generally ascribed to a combination of corruption and incompetence.

"Apparently the worst source of pollution ruining the Ganges is industrial," Oded Distel, the director of the investment Promotion Center and Israel New Tech at the Economy Ministry, told Haaretz today.

Make no mistake, there are no quick and easy fixes possible here, Distel  elaborates. The first stage will be for India to stop its industries from pouring their toxic horrors into the sacred river. Then one can think about cleaning it.

"The technology exists. Now we have to see that all the other components are in place," says Distel, who is scheduled to visit India in August to discuss concrete elements – including who would be supervising the gargantuan project, and who would be covering the cost.

"From our perspective, we have the industry, and companies that know how to clean these things up," he sums up.

Possibly the sheer urgency created by the pressures of climate change  - record heat waves have killed thousands of people in the region this year - coupled with Modi's determination and Israeli technology, will make the difference this time.

Hindu devotees gather on the banks of the Ganges to take holy dips on Somvati Amavasya, Haridwar, May 18, 2015.