Though Ganga had constantly been ingested with Microplastics in the recent past, it has often skipped the radar of policymakers and the Think-tank. But the recent release of the report named, “Quantitative analysis of Microplastics along River Ganga” by a Delhi-based NGO ‘Toxics Link’, has drawn the focus of the national narrative towards the silent catastrophe lurking in River Ganga. The samples collected by the NGO at various places like Varanasi, Haridwar & Kanpur have raised several red flags, throwing some light on the looming threat. At each of these places, almost 40 kinds of polymers of micro-plastic size have been found and are reported to be at alarming levels. The concept of micro-plastic pollution isn’t totally unheard of in India. Though plastic waste had drawn enough traction among environmentalists decades ago, microplastics have emerged as a key pollutant only recently, and thereby there aren’t adequate studies on it in India. To understand the significance of this report, first, we need to know what are microplastics and what are their intricacies.
As per UNEP definition, Microplastics, as the name suggests, are small pieces of plastics that are less than 5mm in size. Microplastics are basically of two types. One, which is not micro in origin, but which is formed due to subsequent decay and fragmentation of larger plastics. And the second one, these are deliberately manufactured to be of micro in size, and these have a specific name called “Microbeads”. While type one is nothing but the debris of plastic products and is of no commercial use, type two has a varied range of commercial utility. They are used in a wide range of products, primarily owing to their inherent characteristics. Though both types are notorious for their deleterious impacts, the second type, i.e., Micro beads are of special concern due to their ever-increasing applications in manufacturing processes.
A Double-Edged Sword
Microbeads, a type of microplastics, have inherent qualities like small size, durability, high thermal and electrical insulation, cheaper costs, corrosion-free, etc, which have led to their wide usage in a multitude of products. From cosmetics, toothpaste to Textiles, they are in great demand in the manufacturing processes.
However, despite their advantages, they come along with a multitude of hazards that far outweigh their advantages. Their typical characteristics like micro size, insolubility, non-decaying nature cumulatively result in microplastics ending up in a lot of ecosystems like rivers, farms, food chains, and even human bodies. This would seriously impact the food chains, Aquatic ecosystems, and human health. The way River Ganga has been succumbing to microplastic pollution stands testimony to the adverse impacts of microplastics. It has been reported by the NGO ‘Toxic links’ that the microplastic abundance in the river Ganga near Varanasi was around 2.42±0.405 MPs/m3. But how did the Ganga end up being a sink of microplastics?
The Ganga: Its battle with Microplastics
Historically, River Ganga holds a special place in Indian civilization. The lives of more than 40% of the population are entwined with this river. The 2,525 km long Ganga’s basin is the largest among all the rivers in India in terms of the catchment area that spans across 11 states. The catchment area constitutes almost 26% of the country’s landmass and supports about 43% of its population. Also, the Ganga basin is world’s one of the most densely populated areas. But the recent studies portray the sorry state of affairs of this iconic river as it has been found to be infested with microplastic pollution at alarming levels. We shall understand how Ganga has become a sink of this modern day pollutant called microplastic.
Sources of Micro-plastic Pollution in Ganga
Owing to its wide geographical spread, discharge from various sources and locations converges into the Ganga, leaving it highly vulnerable to various kinds of pollution, especially microplastics as we discuss. Nearly a whopping 315 tonnes of plastic waste gets deposited in Ganga every day.
Various studies point towards Industrial discharge as the primary source of microplastics in the Ganga. Ganga basin, with its perennial supply of water, supports a lot of industries most of which lie astride the river course. Apart from the industrial discharge (industrial effluents from tanneries, textile factories, chemical factories, distilleries), untreated municipal waste, and religious offerings wrapped in non-degradable plastics, industrial effluents from countless tanneries, slaughterhouses, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries and hospitals pile up the microplastics in Ganga. The plastic products and waste materials discharged into the river further breaks down and are eventually fragmented into microparticles.
Extent of Micro Plastics in Ganga
In 2019, a study was done by ICAR-Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, Kolkata, on sediments of the lower stretches of the Ganga at seven locations. All the sediments were found to contain meso plastics (>5 mm) and microplastics (<5mm) which are dangerously above threshold limits. According to the Toxic link NGO, the exorbitant pollution puts the Ganga among the ten rivers in Asia and Africa that together transport 93 percent of river-based plastics to the Earth’s oceans.
What is equally terrifying is the fact that more than three dozen different types of microplastics are rampant in Ganga. Toxic link NGO was able to study & differentiate between various types of micro-Plastics in Ganga. Polyacetylene which is commonly used as a doping agent in the electronics industry and Polypropylene widely used in the packaging industry, PIP which is mainly used in footwear, Polyamide, commonly known as nylon, and 36 other types were found in the samples.
Since water is most fundamental for the existence of life and the environment, any change in water is set to trigger a domino effect on entire systems dependent on it. So naturally, microplastic pollution in Ganga has reached a lot of systems like Human bodies, agricultural crops, Livestock, Soils etc, and have impacted them in negative ways, some of which we discuss below.
Various studies have repeatedly asserted that Microplastics have permeated most of the ecosystems. They have been reported to have permeated Flora, Fauna, Soils, Water bodies, Atmosphere, etc.
The wide-scale presence of microplastics in soil, due to industrial discharge and rainwater runoff, leaves negative impacts on plants and agriculture. Microplastics altogether alter the biophysical properties of the soil including bulk density, water retention capability, and soil microbial interactions with the roots of the vegetation. Some studies have found that microplastics affect the enzymatic activities of plants which result in genotoxicity and oxidative damage. It is also found that microplastics are up taken by the roots and they accumulate in the transport system of the plants, choking the supplies of vitals. Like a Trojan horse, microplastics generally act as a transporting agent of other contaminants in the soil. They bind with soil contaminants that are available in the proximity. One such example is the notorious polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are highly carcinogenic. Thus, when microplastic bind-up with PCBs, PCBs get a potential free ride into organisms and further up into the food chain.
River Ganga supports a wide array of fauna, especially the Animalia like Gangetic dolphins, Eels, Mahseers, Gharials, Indian soft-shell turtle, etc. Indirectly it provides a habitat for the great Bengal tigers in Sundarbans that are located in its delta region. It’s not just about the Ganges, but the coastal areas in the proximity of the Ganges delta also bear the brunt of plastic-infested Ganga water. Ganga Delta, which boasts the distinction of being the world’s largest delta, is a lifeline for a wide array of aquatic creatures. So, any negative change in Ganga waters is sure to trigger a domino effect on the ecology centered around it.
Microplastics, when consumed by aquatic creatures, enter the gut of the organisms and interferes with their normal functions. They choke their digestive tracts, diminish their appetite, and disrupt their feeding behaviour, all of which jeopardise their growth and development. Once their intestines are engulfed with plastic stuff, they may starve to death.
As we have discussed earlier, Ganga is famous for the Ganges dolphin, which has been listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN Red book. According to the study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India, the fragmented microplastics, emanated from fishing nets in the Ganga River, poses a severe threat to several animals like the critically endangered three-striped roofed turtle and the endangered Ganges River dolphin.
The Gangetic Dolphins, which bears the distinction as National aquatic animals, are essentially blind. They find their food by a natural mechanism called echolocation. So, they may not be able to differentiate between plastics and their diet owing to their blindness. As a result, lumps of plastic particles enter their gut which finally culminates in their death. As the Ganga River discharges into the Bay of Bengal, marine life forms in proximity to the Ganges delta are also prone to the wrath of microplastic pollution of the Ganga River. The study by Toxic link NGO, reckons that nearly 72 marine species are boring the brunt of plastic pollution.
Microplastics do not just end up permeating flora and fauna. Being tertiary consumers, Humans consume this flora and fauna that are infested with scourges of microplastics.
Microplastics are spread all over the food chains which makes it difficult for humans to evade the ingestion of microplastics. Various studies from across the world have shed light on the myriad of ways through which microplastics have been found to be deleterious to health. Exposure is not just limited to the food chain. It may also happen through inhalation and dermal contact. Over exposure to microplastics often leads to Particle toxicity, Oxidative stresses and inflammatory lesions. The inability of our immune system to negate the microplastics further compounds the problem resulting in chronic inflammations and increasing vulnerability to neoplasia, a kind of cancer.
India is predominantly an agrarian economy. The Ganga valley supports, one of the world’s most intensive cropping belts. The Ganga River basin is the most populated river basin in the world with a 40-crore population inhabiting it. Any downfall in the yields due to micro-plastic pollution would throw the livelihood of crores of farmers out of gear. And it is well-known fact that agrarian distress would have a ripple effect on the entire nation’s economy.
The World Bank report on the state of water resources in India draws an estimation that the human health costs of water pollution in India could be 3% of India’s GDP . Also, the expenditures incurred on health hazards caused by ingestion of microplastics adds a huge burden on the people inhabiting the Ganges basin that houses a disproportionate amount of Below poverty level population (BIMARU states). World Bank report estimates that around 80 percent of the nation’s illnesses and one-third of the deaths could be attributed to water-borne diseases. In a country, where 67.5% of the expenditure on health comes straight out of pocket (as per WHO), any additional expenditure due to health issues would plunge many vulnerable communities into below poverty levels.
River Ganga isn’t just a river. The story of Indian civilizational history is never complete without mentioning the river Ganga. It is so entwined with the identity of the country that people call India metaphorically as,” Jis desh mei Ganga behti hai” (The country in which Ganga flows). It stood as an icon for Indian culture and Hinduism, which is the predominant religion of the land. It attracts tourists from all across the globe. The river Ganga, in Indian literature & folklore, stands for holiness and piousness. The samples collected from the Iconic city, Varanasi, repeatedly reported coliform levels 100 times more than the prescribed limit. Such toxicity at holy places may dent its cultural reputation and may jeopardize its prospects on the world spiritual map.
What has the Government done so far?
Understanding the impending crisis, the Government of India has committed to step up and fight the plastic pollution. Those include:
- Pledging to end usage of single-use plastic by 2022.
- India’s collaboration with Norwegian government to fight microplastic pollution.
- Commissioners of 118 towns located along the Ganga have been directed to prohibit the manufacture and use of plastic carry bags below 50-micron thickness.
- A cadre of about 1000 Ganga Praharis was raised for spreading the message of Ganga cleanliness.
- The iconic “Namame Ganga” programme to rid Ganga of all sorts of pollution.
- Notification of Solid waste management rules 2016 and subsequent amendments to it.
But, despite this plethora of initiatives, there is a serious dearth of studies specifically focused on microplastic pollution in Ganga. As a result, there are not many initiatives that specifically target microplastic pollution. Many of the initiatives are generic in nature and are tipped to fight plastic litter and not microplastics specifically. This is a grave handicap in our fight to rid Ganga of microplastic pollution. This shows the policymakers have not yet understood the dynamics of microplastics as a separate entity. Besides this, there are several administrational lapses in tackling the crisis. For e.g. The gargantuan task of cleaning Ganga demands seamless coordination between various departments and ministries. The ministry of water resources had signed several MOUS with ten ministries for better coordination to fructify the Namami Gange program. However, till date, no details have been divulged as to how these ministries are functioning to get the task accomplished.
The Clock is Ticking
There is no single magic wand to wipe off the micro plastic litter from Ganga. Owing to its vast geography and the socio-cultural practices that surround it, it’s going to be a mammoth job that needs a multi-pronged strategy, taking on board various stakeholders and administrations at various levels.
- Firstly, communities lying bestride the Ganges should be sensitized about the crisis that’s awaiting us, emanating from the micro-plastic pollution. Local panchayats should be encouraged and incentivized in the form of fiscal rewards. It should be turned into a Jan-Andholan, with active participation from all the sections.
- Government should sponsor research institutions to conduct exclusive researches on Micro-plastic pollution which has been neglected all this while. Accurate data on the micro-plastics could prove to be gold dust in the fight against abolishing them. Ground data would go a long way in helping in scientific decision making.
- Adopting the best practices being implemented across the world to control microplastic spread in water bodies. Using the membrane-based bioreactor technology where-in fibres are used to treat wastewater to weed out microplastics, and Nanocellulose membrane filters could be quite effective.
- Governments at both union and federal levels should come down hard on sources of pollution, in accordance with the Solid waste management rules and other waste disposal-related statutes and fiats.
- Most importantly, there should be a Mechanical and organic synergy between centre and states on one hand & between different states on the other hand. As the Ganga basin spreads across 11 states, it is imperative for all the stake holder to take on the micro plastic pollution in unison. Lack of co-ordination would result in the efforts going haywire.
As rivers, especially the Ganga, are lifelines for human civilizations and a source of irrigation for agriculture, immediate and well thought out plans are imperative to stop our rivers from degrading into “microplastic hotspots”. This will go a long way not only in protecting the river, but also Human health, Ecology & Economy of the entire Ganga plains.