As readers of Fresh[water] Ideas for a Thirsty Planet we have been globe-trotting around the world looking at freshwater issues and the looming crisis of freshwater resources for a crowded planet.  You are more informed than the vast majority of people and in a couple of weeks the National Geographic Society is going to release to newsstands their edition devoted solely to freshwater issues:  http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater

As National Geographic says:      By 2050 a third of the people on Earth may lack a clean, secure source of water. Join National Geographic in exploring the local stories and global trends that define the world’s water crisis. Learn about freshwater resources and how they are used to feed, power, and sustain all life. See how the forces of technology, climate, human nature, and policy create challenges and drive solutions for a sustainable planet.

But you already know this…so spread the word.  NGS is pouring its vast resources into this issue, from beautiful photography, video, and a website…it should be a tremendous lift to increasing global awareness and the development of grassroots political will to address these issues.

Meanwhile, Fresh[water] Ideas for a Thirsty Planet will continue our globetrotting wrapping up the Tibetan plateau series for now and moving on to other continents.  As you know by now, and others will be catching on to, no matter where you go in this world we are all connected-whether we want to be or not.  The hydrologic cycle is blind to man’s political boundaries and cultures and it is up to us, not nature, to adapt and work out our resource needs.  No water, no civility, no civilization…

The Mekong River…

The name evokes images of a slow-moving muddy river surrounded by a hot and steamy jungle, buzzing insects and visions of the Vietnam War.  I think of Marlon Brando, in the movie Apocalypse Now – and its inspiration Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, having descended into his madness, surrounded by local tribesmen muttering to himself…”the horror, the horror”.  To me the Mekong evokes memories of conflict. While it gives life to millions of people from its origins in the Tibetan Plateau to the “Nine Dragons” delta in Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea, The Mekong River is still very much a river of conflict.

The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and sustains over 60 million people.  It falls approximately 5,000 meters [~16,500 feet~] along its 2,600 mile journey.  Six countries-China, Myanmar [Burma], Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam- share the Mekong River’s waters-all with different needs and priorities for their people.

The Mekong has always been shrouded in some mystery as the origin of the river was not certified until October 1999.  Early explorers were challenged by its many waterfalls, rapids and tributaries.  Its source was confirmed by the Chinese government in 1999 as beginning at Lasagongma creek which is fed by the glacier on the north side of Mt. Guosongmucha.

[ reference http://www.africanwater.org/mekong_river.htm and http://www.shangri-la-river-expeditions.com/1stdes/mekong/mekongsource/TUA2001.html ]

What makes the Mekong a study in trans-boundary water issues and hydro-politics is that the river begins in the Tibetan plateau of China, flows southeast between Myanmar [Burma] and Laos, then most of the border between Laos and Thailand, into Cambodia and then into Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea.  Many people, many countries, many needs.

To address the complex issues of the Mekong River the Mekong River Commission [MRC] was created in 1995.  The problem is that the upriver country, China, refused to become a member of the Commission…China and Myanmar are “dialogue partners” leaving Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam as the only real partners.  Since China controls the source of the Mekong they dismiss the downstream countries concerns as China builds more and more dams for hydro-power and agricultural use of the water.  This leaves the downstream people in a precarious position…

An organization monitoring the issues of the Mekong is the Living Rivers Siam organization which has good information on the Mekong as well.  The following video is in Thai with English subtitles:

The dam construction and rapids demolition are combining with issues such as population growth, municipal storm water and sewage discharges into the river, increased sedimentation from deforestation, and pollution from agriculture/industrial sources– all of which are poorly regulated and have lax enforcement.

The Mekong also has a rich biodiversity which is at risk from attitudes that say “I am not responsible for what happens downstream”.  Some species are found nowhere else in the world.  The Mekong Catfish is a startling species of fish that is at risk along with freshwater dolphins and manatees.  The picture below is of a Mekong catfish weighing in at 646 Lbs.  Who’s going swimming?

While the Brahmaputra River impacts the lives of Indians and Bangladeshis the Mekong impacts the people of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam…China has water power over all these people.  Power of life.  Throw into this complex multinational trans-boundary challenge the diminishing seasonal glacier melt water from disappearing Tibetan plateau glaciers and the entire equation becomes even more difficult.

The Mekong is a case study in hydro-politics and Asian water security.  It is yet another reminder that the environment and the economy are inextricably intertwined and to ignore one without paying attention to the other is a recipe for disaster.  Which lead us to our last posting on the Tibetan Plateau series: Asian water security.

Like the island nation of Kiribati, the Greenland glaciers, and the story of Cochabamba, Bolivia… The Mekong River is an exotic story on the other side of the earth from where I sit but it is a story like the wind, as Laurens van Der Post said, “it comes from a far off place but we feel it here”


[photo courtesy of:  www.indialine.com/articles/baharul-assam.html]

The Brahmaputra…

The world’s fourth largest river in the world…Born in rarified air of Tibetan plateau from the Jima Yangzong Glacier near Mt. Kailash in the northern Himalayas, the Brahmaputra flows almost 2,900 Km [1,800 miles] to join the Ganges River in Bangladesh to form the world’s largest river delta in the Bay of Bengal.  The Brahmaputra drains an area of approximately 9.4 million square kilometers…combined with the Ganges River these rivers sustain more people than all the people in western Europe and North America combined.

The Brahmaputra goes by a number of names during its journey to the sea.  It begins as the Yarlung Tsangpo in southwestern Tibet and becomes the Dihang in China, then the Brahmaputra in India and finally the Jamuna in Bangladesh.  Named for the son of Brahma from Hindu mythology this sacred river is the focus of great concern for the countries of China, India and Bangladesh.

There has been speculation for years that China may build a dam in the area of the Great Bend to divert water into China’s Gobi desert which covers half of China’s landmass and yet has only 7 percent of its freshwater.   Here is an excerpt from an article from the Hindu Business Line:

China’s attempt to divert the Brahmaputra has reared its head again. The Chinese are apparently eyeing about 40 billion cubic meters, out of the annual average inflow of 71.4 billion, of the Brahmaputra’s waters. The river skirts China’s borders before dipping into India and Bangladesh. China has a serious need to feed water to its north-west territory, the Gobi Desert, which contains almost half the country’s total landmass, but only seven percent of its freshwater. The Gobi occupies an area of 1,300,000 sq.km making it one of the largest deserts in the world. Desertification of Gobi since 1950s has expanded it by 52,000 sq.km and it is now just 160 km from Beijing. It is said to expand by 3 km per year.

China has the will and the necessary resources — manpower, technology and, above all, large foreign currency reserves in excess of a trillion dollars — to take the Brahmaputra diversion project forward; the country’s economic stimulus in infrastructure could create employment potential for more than a few million people.

The Brahmaputra flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailash range of the Himalayas to its massive delta and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The river drains a vast area of nearly 9,36,800 sq. km. This river system forms the largest river delta and the third largest free water fall out into the Ocean in the world — next only to the Amazon and the Congo rivers. More people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin than Western Europe and the entire North American continent.

This river system is of critical interest to all the four countries, including Nepal. China is an upper riparian state and, therefore, has the freedom and capacity to divert the river. Should that happen, the irreparable loss will result in destruction of a large part of the North-East and Bangladesh. This step will also drive millions of refugees from Bangladesh into India for their livelihood. There is thus an urgent need to address this issue trilaterally.

Water sustains life, environment and our culture. With global demand for water on the rise, we cannot be surprised if one country responds to its needs unilaterally; it is for us to take adequate steps before such disaster strikes.–by S. Padmanabhan http://www.blonnet.com/2009/04/14/stories/2009041450250900.htm

China says it has no designs on the Brahmaputra.  In a story reported by the Times of India this past fall China’s Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, stated in the China Daily that the proposal to divert waters of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra had no government backing and “there is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects”.

…Maybe…Just this past month another issue has come to the surface that may play a role in what China does in the future about the river.  China has very dirty water.  In a story published by the Washington Post on February 10th the Post reported that China’s water pollution levels are more than twice the amount officially reported in 2007.   China neglected to account for agricultural runoff and pollution which is a MAJOR factor in any freshwater basin area.   China has very smart and capable people…to suggest that they just forgot to account for it invites skepticism and speculation as to why…

China’s own freshwater resources have become more strained as population grows and pollution ruins available freshwater.  China has water issues…and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra river is a tempting source and solution for their issues.  If you are downstream from China on the Brahmaputra River you have every right to be concerned about the Dragon upstream…

[graphic courtesy of Flyinureye]

Commentary: I don’t believe that China is totally dismissing or abandoning the project.  The Chinese government states that the idea of the Great Western Route Water Transfer Project was merely floated as an idea by a group of retired government officials in a book, “Tibet’s Water Will Save China”.   China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao is quoted as saying, “there may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they’re not experts advising the government”, in an attempt to soothe the fears of India and Bangladesh.

China’s government controls what gets published in China [try publishing a book critical of the government and see where you end up…].   This sounds an awful lot like the government floating a trial balloon of the idea and seeing what surfaces in opposition.  By placing the initiative on “retired officials” the government has deniability as far as official policy, they get to see what the reactions and objections are in order to work the issues early, and the government can claim “grassroots support by the People” if they move ahead since it wasn’t an “official idea”.  This isn’t a grassroots idea-it’s Astroturf—manufactured and manipulated to look like popular support to create political cover.

Some of the reasons given for dismissing the project by Mr. Liu have been listed as “expensive, technologically unfeasible and controversial”.  Sounds reasonable on the surface…BUT China has foreign currency reserves in the trillions–they have the money [if you’re an American reading this a lot of that money is yours]; it would create a massive economic stimulus and employment program; China has always been smart,  innovative and technologically savvy-if they want to do it they can; and finally China has shown that controversial policies and actions don’t effect them the way a democratically elected, transparent government with a free press is.

They are a central government dominated by a few that rules the many and one cannot accept at face value what government spokespeople say.  They are beholden to the Party and that doesn’t necessarily mean the truth.  There is no free press, no toleration of dissent and no way to verify what is political “spin”, lies, or half-truths.

To be fair China is initiating more environmentally responsible policies.  They’re seeing that in a centrally planned economy where the focus is on output the environmental costs, or “externalities”, in the production of a good is actually a cost that society bears whether it is in human health or ecosystem degradation for example.  Polluted water from industrial discharge, agricultural runoff, and human waste reduces available freshwater resources for an expanding population that is also urbanizing [congregating].  China is seeing that a healthy economy and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand and not at the expense of the other.  It may have been embarrassing for China to have its pollution issues exposed for all the world to see as they were for the summer Olympics, but they addressed it and they’re better for it.  It is a  problem when a government is too insecure to be able to accept or be responsive to legitimate criticism…resentments build until an unarmed student needs to stand in front of a tank in order to be heard.  It’s even more of a problem in the international arena…

So, thumbs up for China addressing its environmental issues that they have created and thumbs down on the Party’s insecurity in not being transparent and tolerating dissent as part of human discourse.  You earn trust–you’re not given it just because you demand it.  India and Bangladesh are smart to be wary of the Dragon, we all should be.  There is opportunity for cooperation in all of this but China will act in its own self-interest…

There is much at stake downstream from the roof of the world.  The Brahmaputra is one of the storied holy rivers of the Plateau and when combined with the Ganges supports a vast array of life in its course and as it empties out into the Bay of Bengal.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta is the largest delta in the world and is home to the Sundarbans–the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  The Sunderban and the delta supports the people and wildlife of Bangladesh.

Diminishing the water that flows downstream from the Tibetan Plateau glaciers places all life downstream at risk.  This is a serious issue for hundreds of millions of people and it is a geo-political flash point for conflict.   So far we humans have shown that we can negotiate and settle these issues in about half of the conflict cases, BUT the new variable that is being introduced in Asia’s water security challenge is climate change.  The Plateau’s glaciers are shrinking and seasonal flows of water from the Tibetan Plateau glaciers are being effected.

Next on the Tibetan Plateau River issues will be the legendary Mekong River…and here more countries are involved and it becomes a case study in trans-boundary hydro-politics.

Being an informed global citizen makes us all better local and global stewards of our freshwater resources.  It makes us individually and collectively more effective and makes for better national and international policies.

We all need to pay attention to this…no water…no civility…no humanity…no civilization

Posted by: shipbright | February 23, 2010

IPCC controversy…keeping the debate on an even keel…

Over the last few weeks there has been a brewing controversy over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] handling of its data.  The IPCC is organized under the auspices of the United Nations and is a consortium of the world’s leading climatologists whose collective view on climate change is the most advanced and rigorous study of climate change.

Below are two statements from the IPCC.  There are those whose denial of climate change seeks to discredit any refinement of data-refinement and constant updating is part of the scientific process…certainty is left for death and taxes. 

For those following the Tibetan Plateau series the first statement refers specifically to the Himalayan glaciers.  There are other smaller contributing factors to the deglaciation of the Himalayan glaciers such as carbon soot from pollution.  Anyone who has watched what volcanic soot can do to an ice pack knows that the gray ash holds the sun’s heat and melts the snow/ice more rapidly than the surrounding white snow/ice.  I saw this first hand in Alaska last winter when the Mt. Redoubt volcano erupted.  I was teaching skiing on the weekends at the Aleyska Ski Resort and watched how the ash, warmed by the sun, melted patches of snow on the ski trails. 

Regardless of the soot contribution in the Himalayas, which some think is the root cause, the rising temperatures and changes in the hydrologic cycle over the long run in the Tibetan Plateau is the prime variable.  Long term monitoring and traditional knowledge by residents [see Asia Society video in early post for herdsmen interviews] bear this out.  More importantly the climate change issue does not hang on what happens to one area of glaciers–it’s the world as a whole, places like Greenland, the Andes, Antarctica. 

Geneva, 20 January 2010 

IPCC statement on the melting of Himalayan glaciers [1]

The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.  [emphasis mine]

 It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment [2] refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly. The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report” [3]. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.

 1. This statement is from the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, and the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups.

2. The text in question is the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of the Working Group II contribution and a repeat of part of the paragraph in Box TS.6. of the Working Group II Technical Summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

3. This is verbatim text from Annex 2 of Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work.

 

 Geneva, 25 January 2010

IPCC STATEMENT ON TRENDS IN DISASTER LOSSES

The January 24 Sunday Times ran a misleading and baseless story attacking the way the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC handled an important question concerning recent trends in economic losses from climate-related disasters. The article, entitled “UN Wrongly Linked Global Warming to Natural Disasters”, is by Jonathan Leake.

 The Sunday Times article gets the story wrong on two key points. The first is that it incorrectly assumes that a brief section on trends in economic losses from climate-related disasters is everything the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007) has to say about changes in extremes and disasters. In fact, the Fourth Assessment Report reaches many important conclusions, at many locations in the report, about the role of climate change in extreme events. The assessment addresses both observations of past changes and projections of future changes in sectors ranging from heat waves and precipitation to wildfires. Each of these is a careful assessment of the available evidence, with a thorough consideration of the confidence with which each conclusion can be drawn. The second problem with the article in the Sunday Times is its baseless attack on the section of the report on trends in economic losses from disasters. This section of the IPCC report is a balanced treatment of a complicated and important issue. It clearly makes the point that one study detected an increase in economic losses, corrected for values at risk, but that other studies have not detected such a trend. The tone is balanced, and the section contains many important qualifiers. In writing, reviewing, and editing this section, IPCC procedures were carefully followed to produce the policy-relevant assessment that is the IPCC mandate.

The IPCC…bookmark this website.  It’s the best knowledge on the globe.  http://www.ipcc.ch/

Sometimes when the world slows down surprising things come to light…like looking at a small patch of coral for a while and seeing new life you hadn’t seen before.  Same is true in the physics of water.  This is awesome:

Next up at Fresh[water] Ideas for a Thirsty Planet:  The Brahmaputra, China, India and Bangladesh…

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”–Darwin      

The IPCC–Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change- is the global consortium of the world’s climatologists organized under the umbrella of the United Nations.  These are the people we need to pay attention and listen to.  There are many people out there espousing views on climate change under the general label of “scientist”.  If you want to understand climate change you need to look to a climatologist-just like if you have a heart attack you see a cardiologist not a ophthalmologist.  Both are medical doctors but one has expertise in the medical science of the heart and one has expertise in eyes.  Just recently the IPCC pulled its estimate that the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau will be gone by 2035.  They pulled that statement because the data had not been subjected to rigorous intellectual review.  It had not been “Peer Reviewed” as part of the process that the IPCC adheres to.  Skeptics, nay-sayers, and political purveyors of denialism have seized on this issue to attack the entire climate change debate because data was pulled and estimates retracted–for now…      

It doesn’t mean the data is wrong.  It means that the data did not fulfill the IPCC’s standard for being included in their reports.      

Just recently meteorologists were saying that the earth was showing signs of getting colder and many of the climate change skeptics used that as their banner to deny trend, attribution or impact.  Here is the problem with meteorologists espousing that data as proof there is no climate change:  meteorologists were looking at a 10 year trend;  the IPCC does not consider any data that is not AT LEAST 25 years in trend.  Still skeptical?  Well it turns out that from 1998-2008 that trend would have been correct BUT it’s because 2008 was a particularly warm El Nino year so the following years looked “colder” than the base year of 1998.  The 10 year trend data from 1999 to 2009 shows that the earth was indeed warming up and even more rapidly!  Why?  Because 1999 was a particularly cold year as a base year and the trend then showed a rapidly warming planet.      

Bottom Line: Don’t pay attention to 10 year trends…IPCC has been looking at data from the last 150 years and the last decade has been the warmest on record.  The data shows the long-term trend definitively.      

So when the IPCC pulls data and retracts estimates look at the reason why they did this.  They are a rigorous body of global climate scientists who are dispassionately looking at all the information and teasing out trends, attributions and impacts.  Unlike some climate change skeptics these scientists have NO political agenda or economic self interests to protect for themselves or their small group of shareholders.  The world is their shareholders and we owe them a debt of gratitude for the intelligence and passion for the truth that they bring to bear on this issue for our collective benefit.      

The breaking story now is that the IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri [picture left] is being accused of economic interest in skewing climate change data…The nay-sayers allege that his payments from his consulting work are influencing his quest to have the facts fit the theory …well it turns out the payments he receives goes to Energy and Resources Institute where that nonprofit engages in projects like “Lighting a Billion Lives” which provides solar lanterns to poor people in India.   Dr. Pachauri does indeed receive a salary from the Energy and Resources Institute–all $49,000 a year according to income tax returns.  Any reasonable person would dismiss such allegations of impropriety and can see that this is blatant character assassination of someone who is doing us all a great service.  Do people in places of great power and influence need to be transparent for all to see?  YES, these people wield and influence great power in our lives and their credibility is the Keystone in our listening to them, believing them and taking collective actions as a result of our faith and trust in their integrity.      

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has a Chief Executive of JPMorgan/Chase on their Board.  Is that a conflict of interest?  Maybe, but this person is well schooled and wise in the ways of the free market and adds value to the board for their insight, experience, and wisdom.  As long as it’s a transparent relationship and we can see for ourselves that this person is not reaping personal and unjust enrichment from this position I’m grateful for that person being on the board.  Thank you for your service!  I imagine this executive makes a LOT more than $49,000 a year… not to mention the bonuses.       

What I find most upsetting is the character assassination that some people engage in when they disagree with or are still ignorant on an issue.  When I look at the most vocal and mean-spirited of them I find they have a political and/or economic agenda to protect or push down the throats of others.  We need international statesmanship and not provincial politicians out to “get their’s” at the expense of everyone else.   We are dealing with an enormously critical issue to all life on this planet…we are all in the same boat…we need to adapt.      

Here’s a good article on this controversy from the Times of India.  As a country downstream from the Tibetan Plateau and with so much of their freshwater dependent upon the seasonal runoff from the Plateau’s glaciers India is paying very close attention to these issues…more so than the rest of us, “One slip does not change the Big Picture”:      

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/special-report/One-slip-does-not-change-the-big-picture/articleshow/5518665.cms      

The New York Times has also just ran a story on this issue to help you wade through the fluff, spin, hype of the nay-sayers who would rather strike up the band on the deck of the Titanic and distract you instead of helping to solve the problem:      

      

U.N. Climate Panel and Chief Face Credibility Siege, By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL, Published: February 9, 2010      

Rajendra K. Pachauri and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change face accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest.       

If a picture is worth a thousand words then watch the photographic evidence of deglaciation in the Tibetan Plateau.  Early adventurers to Mt. Everest photographically documented the Third Goddess and her glaciers, specifically the Main, East and West Rongbuk glaciers.  In recent years technology has allowed photos from space to document what is happening on the Yarlung and Helong glaciers around the Plateau.   This documentary is from the Asia Society and their “On Thinner Ice” project has documented the deglaciation of the Tibetan Plateau.  They also interview the local herdsmen and farmers whose knowledge, learned and passed down from countless generations of those who have lived and died in the shadows of the great mountains, is a treasure trove of traditional knowledge.      

      

Here is a second video that David Breashears did for the society:      

      

After viewing these videos I recommend you explore their other videos at:  http://asiasociety.org/onthinnerice      

Lastly, I believe in God and I believe in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.  It’s not an either/or paradigm as some would have us believe.  Having gone to religious schools, with religion classes all the way through High School, I do believe that God helps those who help themselves.  If your faith, no matter what faith that is-even if it is not part of any organized religion, is strong then resist those who would hold us back from doing our duty to be good stewards of our planet.      

So, with a last note of humor, put on your Rapture Helmets if you choose but lend a hand in helping to solve our planet’s problems as well because the Rapture isn’t a public policy option and it’s not going to get us out of this mess…      

      

[courtesy of Stephen Colbert…http://www.colbertnation.com/home ]

“The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, born in Allahabad on the Ganges

[A Holy Man prays in the Ganges River during Magh Mela Photo: AP]

The Ganges River story is a challenge to tell in a brief format that distills the major issues for people to appreciate and link to their own lives half a world away.  The complexity of the issues around the River Ganges, or Ganga Ma [Mother Ganges], sheds light on the complexity of our own desires, needs, and flaws as a human race.

It is a compelling story and a difficult story because it exposes truths that are sometimes hard to admit.  The problems we face are problems we have created for ourselves in our collective behaviors.  The problems are easy to deflect personal responsibility for since our individual actions are merely straws in a large hay pile.  But a huge complicated hay pile it has become and we are to blame.  We are responsible, individually and collectively, to correct the problems.  While this story may be taking place on the other side of the planet it holds universal lessons for all of us.

Let’s begin with the spiritual face that Man has put on the river:   Throughout the ages, the Ganges has played a dramatic part in the spiritual lives of the Indian people. It is said that to know the Ganges is to know India and her people. The river is strong, proud, and overbearing; she is also humble, peaceful, and stern; she is always changing yet ever the same.  The Ganges is worshiped as a mother goddess, gangadevi, and her celestial water is believed to possess supernatural power. Mother Ganges is many things to many people. She is the provider for the millions who reside in the agricultural communities along her banks; she is the bestower of benedictions for the pious, and the redeemer of sins for the sinful; she is the healer of disease for the sick; and for the dying, she is the giver of liberation from the cycle of birth and death.  The devout deeply believe in the powers of the Ganges water. It is said that if one bathes in the Ganges or even sprinkles three drops of Ganges water on his head, he becomes freed from past sins (karma). The ganges is believed to have such purging effects on the impurities of the soul that if one even remembers the name of the Ganges, he acquires such merit that he easily attains a place in heaven. [courtesy of www.gosai.com]

Mother Ganga, in the intricate and complex belief system of Hinduism, is the essence of purity.  To drink her waters is to heal, to bathe in her waters is to wash away the sins, to have your body cremated and ashes scattered in her waters is to ensure your place in heaven.  The waters are holy and revered…and humans and those that love the river are making her ill.  That which we love we often hurt in our ignorance.  Perhaps it is our fall from God’s Grace… a central theme in all the worlds religions that our sins are our imperfection and our challenge to redeem ourselves in God’s eyes.  It is the same for the River Ganges, in loving the river Man has made the river ill.

Physically, the Ganges River begins high in the Tibetan plateau and winds its way 2,500 Kilometers [about 1,500 miles] to the Indian Ocean in the Bay of Bengal.  The river flows through China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.  The Ganges river basin [~1million square kilometers~] is both one of the most fertile places on earth and also one of its most populated with over 400 million people dependent upon the river as a lifeline.

[courtesy of wikimedia]

Along its journey water is diverted for irrigation of crops and as a consequence water levels in the river have dropped to make the river unnavigable to cities and towns that once supported river boat trade.  The river is used for discharge of industrial waste from factories, such as leather makers and pulp mills, and raw human sewage.

“Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi on April 5, 2009. More than 400 million people live along the Ganges River. An estimated 2,000,000 persons ritually bathe daily in the river, which is considered holy by Hindus. In the Hindu religion it is said to flow from the lotus feet of Vishnu (for Vaisnava devotees) or the hair of Shiva (for Saivites). While the Ganges may be considered holy, there are some problems associated with the ecology. It is filled with chemical wastes, sewage and even the remains of human and animal corpses which carry major health risks by either direct bathing in the water (e.g.: Bilharziasis infection), or by drinking (the Fecal-oral route).” AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH

Humans ritually bathe themselves in the waters adding to the pollution.  Fecal coliform [from human “poop”] measurements have been recorded as high as 67,000 times the safe level for humans. 

[copyright Thomas Cunzolo]

Families cremate the remains of their loved ones and then scatter the ashes into the waters to ensure entrance into heaven.  For those who cannot afford a proper cremation the river receives partially cremated human corpses…

There are those that are working hard now to clean up the Ganges.  They seek to create and enforce more stringent pollution laws for industries as well as for cities and towns that discharge raw and untreated sewage into the river.  With 400 million people dependent upon her waters and a population that is second only to China in size it is imperative the Ganges River be cleaned up.  This is no longer a matter of a few pilgrims, farmers, factory owners, or local people who use the water.  We humans are killing the Goddess…and now we’re facing diminished seasonal water from the Tibetan Plateau as a result of shrinking glaciers from climate change.

The Ganges is precariously positioned to become a concentrated stream of poison to all life dependent upon her.  The Ganges is far beyond the point that “the solution to pollution is dilution”.  In fact, the earth as a whole is beyond that paradigm when we have a population explosion of almost 7 billion people…

The Ganges River is iconic not just for its spiritual inspiration for India and her people but because the River is a focal point of human needs.  It is our need for spirituality and meaning in our lives, the reality of growing food to eat, the creation of goods for our daily life, and the need for clean water for health, hydration and hygiene.    The river, and the life dependent upon her, faces diminishing freshwater runoff from glaciers, competing withdrawal of the water for agricultural and industrial use, human contamination of the water as a communal bathtub, graveyard, and worshipping site.  While the Ganges is being made ill by the people that flock to her shores, all of us have a hand in strangling the waters that flow into the river in the first place.  What will happen when the waters begin to dry up?  Or China diverts the water for its population? Or Bangladesh suffers from the Ganges being reduced to a toxic stream no longer able to support the Bangladesh economy or its people? 

I leave you with an excellent video documentary from Tyson Sadler on the Ganges.  Be forewarned that there are scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers.  I’ve gone back and forth about using this video but in the end it is the truth of the situation.  See for your own eyes…

…and say a prayer for the Ganges…

Posted by: shipbright | January 31, 2010

Sunday Serenity…The Grace of Water

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he [she] needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him [her] the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in”–Rachel CarsonJulia-ssFrom the book, Maine Lakes with photography by Christopher Barnes.

This book can be purchased from the Maine Lakes Conservancy Institute and 100% of the proceeds goes to support their children’s water education programs.  They’re a hands-on field based experiential education nonprofit organization and they do good work creating “better stewards for today and leaders for tomorrow”.

Check them out at:  http://www.mlci.org or call them at 1-207-495-2222.  Tell them Fresh[water] Ideas for a Thirsty Planet sent you! 

UPDATE:  The good people at Maine Lakes Conservancy are making the coffee table book available to Fresh[water] Ideas for a Thirsty Planet at a special webprice.  The list price for this beautiful coffee table book is $40.00.  If you call or email them and tell them I sent you they will sell the book for $20.00 to you.  All proceeds benefit their children’s lake science education programs.  You may have to pay shipping costs [ask them], maybe they’ll throw that in as well!

 

Posted by: shipbright | January 28, 2010

On Thinner Ice…a project of the Asia Society.

Right now I am working on a post on the Holy Ganges River and I keep coming back and watching this video by the Asia Society.  Their work on the waters of the Tibetan Plateau is excellent.  So while I research and write away enjoy this in the meantime.  This is an introductory video featuring David Breashers with disappearing glaciers, the people of the Plateau, and the consequences that are already being felt from climate change. 

Clicking on the image will take you to the Asia Society’s website where you can watch the video.  It is very impressive.

 

While I lived in Alaska last winter I had the good fortune to meet and befriend some wonderful people who were politically active in Alaska–and last year was a BIG ONE for Alaska with the “Thrilla from Wasilla”.  Among my new friends was the 2008 Political Blogger of the Year, known as “Mudflats” [www.themudflats.net], and the ever so witty, funny and on-the-go Shannyn Moore who has her own blog [www.shannynmoore.wordpress.com], radio show and now TV show as well as frequent commentator on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC “Countdown” [phew]. 

Some of their friends have become my friends and there is one particular person who Mudflat’s introduced me to.  FLYINUREYE is probably one of the most creative graphic artists I have ever known.   His  imagery that I have seen is usually political and can be funny, irreverent, or satirical or all of the above.  I am in awe of his creativity and ability to visually sum up the issues of the day.  His work often graces the Blog of Mudflats and to see his work  always makes my day.

Fly knows I’ve been actively involved in invasive species and freshwater issues.  He also knows I’m a James Bond fan and the latest James Bond movie, The Quantum of Solace was about Bond fighting “the Bad Guys” who were trying to take over a country’s freshwater resources [“more precious than oil’]…

So to start off your week I present Alaska’s own FLYINUREYE  who ginned this up for me as a break from some more serious visual imagery work he is doing right now.

The hoped-for sequel to the last Bond movie: 

The Quantum of Condensation

[cue the Bond music]

You’re the man Fly.  Thank you!  Stay tuned for some more imagery from Flyinureye as Fresh[water] Ideas for a Thirsty Planet looks at some emerging international water conflicts…

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