NWNL Spotlight

2017 Northern India – Himalayan Flanks
The Ganges River Basin & Arid Rajasthan
January 2017

Overview of the Ganges River Basin

India’s dry Hindo-Gangetic plain, below the Himalyan foothills, begins in Northwestern India’ Rajasthan deserts where the Ganges (or Ganga) River Basin borders the Indus River Basin. Then further east after the Ganges and its tributaries water Delhi and Agra, it flows through India’s populous and fertile heartland. Continuing eastward on the Ganges’ 1,569 mi (2,525 km) route, the water and silt deposits of the converging mighty Brahmaputra River from the east and Ganges feed this northern plain of India before spreading out into the bifurcating distributaries of the Ganges Delta.

The Ganges River Basin. View full-size. Shared by Creative Commons.

Ganges River Source

  • The Himalayas


  • Bay of Bengal

The most populated river basin in the world, the Ganges watershed supports half a billion people. These residents are alternatively threatened by monsoonal floods and devastating droughts. This is a transboundary basin that drains parts of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and China before emptying into the Bay of Bengal with the world’s third largest discharge of water.

Spotlight Purpose: Issues to be Investigated

Many superlatives define this river. It is the most sacred river to Hindus who consider its waters to be both pure and purifying. Yet in 2007 it was the fifth most polluted river of the world, causing serious water-born health issues. The Indian government’s “Ganga Action Plan” initiative is struggling against forces of corruption and long-held political divisions, and well as lack of environmental expertise.

The waters of this river basin have been dammed and diverted by canals since 400 BC to irrigate crops of rice, sugarcane, lentils, oil seeds, potatoes and wheat. Over 95% of this plain is now dedicated agriculture, leaving little natural vegetation or native wildlife. However, the rivers themselves support fish, a vital local food source, and migratory and wetland birds.

Climate change is a current boon bringing increased snowmelt and warmer temperatures; but it is a longer-term threat when there’s no snowmelt left, since Himalaya’s glaciers are retreating faster than anywhere else. In November 2008 the Ganges was declared a “National River.” In March 2017 the Ganges was declared to have the legal rights of a human. These efforts provided hope to those fighting to reverse the sewage and pollution of this holy river, but tangible results are few and water shortages are increasing. As well, water shortage is also a problem in Rajasthan made visible by village women drawing water by buckets from wells and reservoirs at sunrise.

To cope with its chronic water shortages, India employs electric groundwater pumps, diesel-powered tankers and coal-fed power plants. If the country increasingly relies on these energy-intensive short-term fixes, the whole planet’s climate will bear the consequences. India is under enormous pressure to develop its economic potential while also protecting its environment—something few, if any, countries have accomplished. What India does with its water will be a test of whether that combination is possible.
— “How India’s Success is Killing its Holy River.” Jyoti Thottam. Time Magazine, 19 July 2010, p. 15.

Research Team: Alison Jones (NWNL Director), Bonnie Muench (NWNL Photographer)

Expedition Team: Alison Jones (NWNL Director, Conservation Photographer)

Office Support Team: Christina Belasco (NWNL Project Manager)

Outside Resources: Harvey Stein Photographic Workshops, Archana Kumar, Avinash Nathawat

Spotlight Relationship with NWNL Mission and Goals: This brief India expedition will present watershed issues similar to and differing from watersheds NWNL studies in North America and Africa. The melting of Himalayan glaciers creates a double-edged threat of flooding and then great drought. The pollution the Ganges by industry and human waste is overwhelming. Solutions are complex and expensive, and cross boundaries – and thus are slow to be developed.

This spotlight on one of Asia’s greatest rivers offers interesting comparisons to NWNL case-study watersheds and spotlight regions: the transboundary challenges of the Nile and Columbia River Basins, industrial pollution in New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin and the Lower Mississippi River, California’s 6-year drought, agriculture’s great thirst in the US and Africa, impacts of dams and diversion globally, groundwater and riparian rights.

This Ganges Expedition will follow the NWNL Methodology of establishing watershed values, stakeholder identities, present and future threats, consequences of those threats and sustainable management solutions. Resulting research and documentation is expected to enhance NWNL visibility.

Spotlight Outputs: Still photographs will document the causes, impacts and potential solutions of threats to the Ganges including pollution, climate change impacting water quality and availability. Resulting materials will be reported in NWNL Spotlight blogs, social media, videos, magazine articles, lectures and exhibits.

Spotlight Parameters: Like all NWNL Spotlights, this project has a one-time focus with a minimum time commitment. This NWNL Spotlight has met required approval by the NWNL Director and three advisors.