The Coronavirus Helps India’s Ganges

A NextGen Blog by June Noyes, DePaul University.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

June Noyes is an undergraduate student at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She is majoring in Journalism with minors in Anthropology and Public Affair Communication, and with a writing focus on environmental justice and global affairs. June’s post discusses a silver lining to the deadly pandemic currently impacting our world. This positive news highlights the role we each play as “river-keepers” responsible for the health of our waterways.


The Ganges River is a critical waterway and famously known for being one of the most spiritual locations in India. Since the river’s water is regarded as holy, it is a popular destination for religious pilgrimages. It is believed that having one’s cremated ashes scattered in the river breaks the cycle of rebirth. This attracts thousands to the river every year to participate in religious ceremonies. As well, the river is also a major resource for transportation, farming and hydropower. 

Bathing in the Ganges River at Varanasi

A Threatened River

Flowing from the Himalaya Mountains into the Bay of Bengal, this river provides water to over 500 million people.1Ranasinghe, Samurdhi Though this river is a staple in the lives of so many, the pollution of plastic, sewage and contaminants overused by watershed residents and businesses threatens the river’s future. India’s government has been developing solutions to clean the Ganges for decades, yet most have not made a large positive impact. In the past six months however, the Ganges has gone through a significant change due to the coronavirus pandemic. The country-wide lockdown has resulted in lower, healthier levels of pollution, showing just how much impact humans have on the environment.  

Unfortunately, these multifaceted uses have resulted in devastating levels of pollution in the Ganges that affects water and wildlife populations. Water quality has decreased to levels unsafe for human consumption, full of plastic and toxic chemicals. Frequent cremations leave behind funeral materials that end up in the water along with the ashes.2Saluja, Romita

Since 2014, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has proposed numerous plans to save the Ganges River from complete degradation. These efforts included the Namami Gange Programme, plans for river-surface cleaning, improving sewage treatment infrastructure and river-front development.3National Mission for Clean Ganga Modi pledged US $708,000 (200 million rupees) for restoration efforts. Yet by 2019, the government had only spent 20% of the established budget. 

A Recovering River

The coronavirus pandemic hit India in January 2020. By March 2020, Prime Minister Modi had declared a country-wide lockdown in order to slow the spread. This significantly reduced human activity along the Ganges River, allowing it to recover from its centuries of impacts from constant pollutants.   

Row boat crossing the Ganges River

Recent studies of the river’s water quality reveal pollution levels lower than ever. According to scientists, this is a direct result of India’s country-wide COVID-19 lockdown. 

Researchers from the Schroff S. R. Rotary Institute of Chemical Technology (in India) have been publishing the river’s water-quality levels since the lockdown began. They found that the dissolved oxygen (DO) levels have reached a healthy rating of 8 ppm (parts per million), as compared to a less healthy count of  6.5 ppm last year. The Biological Oxygen Demand level has decreased from 4 ppm last year to 3 ppm, meaning there is lower demand of oxygen for aquatic life to decompose organic matter. Some researchers suggest the quality has improved by 40-50% overall since March.4Lokhandwala, Snehal, and Pratibha Gautam

Implications for the Future

So what does this mean for the river?

These levels are indicators of a healthier, cleaner river – safer to drink, healthier for bathing and again a safe environment for the aquatic life. Otherwise, this holy river’s resources would have continued on the track of becoming completely exhausted.

Bathing in the Ganges River

The result of the COVID-19 shutdowns on the Ganges River illustrates just how much humans impact their environment, and what can happen if said environment is given the chance to repair itself. Similar instances have been occurring all over the world during this pandemic. Los Angeles, famous for its intense smog, has had the cleanest air quality in years after going under lockdown and preventing auto emissions into the air.5Paul Scott, et al. Rare pink dolphins have begun reappearing in Hong Kong’s rivers again after ferry traffic halted due to the pandemic.6Master, Farah

Humans can continue to help the planet on an individual basis by reducing their own pollution impact. Abstaining from activities that negatively affect our air and water quality – such as driving, overfishing and littering – can allow nature the chance it needs to renew its resources. Though not easy, and sometimes requiring personal sacrifice, our greatest efforts may be simply leaving the natural world alone for a while.

Boats on the Ganges River

Sources:

Chaudhary, Archana. “Modi’s First Pledge Was to Clean Up the Ganges. What Went Wrong?” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 2 May 2019, http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2019-ganges-journey/

Lokhandwala, Snehal, and Pratibha Gautam. “Indirect Impact of COVID-19 on Environment: A Brief Study in Indian Context.” Environmental Research, Academic Press, 18 June 2020, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935120307027?via=ihub

Master, Farah. “Rare Dolphins Return to Hong Kong as Coronavirus Halts Ferry Traffic.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 14 Sept. 2020, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-hongkong-dolphins/rare-dolphins-return-to-hong-kong-as-coronavirus-halts-ferry-traffic-idUSKBN2650B6

National Mission for Clean Ganga(NMCG),Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India. “नमामि गंगे.” National Mission for Clean Ganga(NMCG),Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India, June 2014, nmcg.nic.in/NamamiGanga.aspx

Paul Scott, et al. “Los Angeles Air Quality in the Time of Covid-19.” Legal Planet, 30 Apr. 2020, legal-planet.org/2020/04/21/los-angeles-air-quality-in-the-time-of-covid/

Ranasinghe, Samurdhi. “New Insights into the Ganges River Basin.” Water, Land and Ecosystems, 3 Aug. 2020, wle.cgiar.org/news/new-insights-ganges-river-basin

Saluja, Romita. “Travel – India’s City Where People Come to Die.” BBC, BBC, 18 June 2019, http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190617-indias-city-where-people-come-to-die

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