How India's Success Is Killing Its Holy River

From the Himalayas to the plains, rampant growth is turning the Ganges into a toxic sewer. It's not too late to put things right

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Lynsey Addario / VII Network for TIME

Hindus bathe in the Ganges at Varanasi, where the pollution is finally getting attention

In a pine-scented Himalayan valley, Sushila Devi is a reluctant soldier in India's new war over water. Her village, Pipola, sits just southeast of the Tehri Dam, which bestrides one of the precursors of the Ganges River and is India's largest hydropower project. Since the dam was completed in 2006, the natural spring that once fed Pipola has dried up. Several times a day, Devi drapes a red sari above her blue eyes, hoists a 2.5-gal. (10 L) brass vessel atop her head and walks to the nearest hand pump. There, she and the other women of Pipola spend two or three hours a day, sometimes more, locked in low-intensity combat. "We have to go to the next village," she says. "Oh, how angry they get. They fight. We wait."

Like any conflict, this one has its desperate refugees and its frustrated negotiators. Virojini Devi's family is one of several in Pipola that had to give up farming for lack of water. Three months ago, her husband left the village to work in a hotel bakery outside of New Delhi, hoping to earn enough to feed their five children. She scavenges along the rough mountain roads for water while the giant lake created by the dam lies untouched a few hundred meters below on the valley floor. "Something is not right," she says. Roshini Devi, Pipola's elected village pradhan, or chief, met with state officials recently to propose pumping water up from the lake. They agreed to the plan but so far have delivered nothing but a twice-daily visit from a water tanker. "It's not a permanent solution," she says.

Battles like the one in Pipola are festering all over India. Taken together, they represent a crisis that affects not just India's deserts but also water-rich areas like the Gangetic Plain, the vast, fertile farmland nourished by the Ganges and its mighty network of tributaries. It's a crisis brought on by India's relentless push to modernize, as water that once sustained small towns and villages is increasingly put in service of big hydroelectric dams, big cities and big agriculture — the engines of economic growth.

Following the Ganges (known as Ganga to Indians) from the Himalayas to Varanasi, 600 miles (965 km) downstream, I saw this tension play out in countless ways. As the villages around the Tehri Dam lose their natural springs, the dam sends drinking water and electricity to Delhi, home to 16 million people. Delhi sucks up not only water but people too — migrants who leave their farms for the city because there isn't enough water to sustain them. The urban areas don't always win, however. Farther downriver, the farms of India's powerful rural heartland divert power and water from small cities like Kanpur. Without enough of either, Kanpur's fight against industrial pollution has become nearly impossible. These competing demands are lowering water levels all along the Ganges, a crisis most apparent in the sacred city of Varanasi. There, a decades-long push to clean up the river is gaining momentum and attracting money, but it may not be enough to correct the miles of mismanagement upstream.

The good news is that India's rivers can still be saved. Like the causes of water scarcity, the policies that can correct them are local and could be put in place immediately. "Water is an issue, unlike climate change, about which I'm not at all despondent," says Sunita Narain, one of India's most influential environmentalists. "In spite of the fact that our rivers really need to be cremated, I do believe that we have solutions."

Finding solutions matters not just to those who live along India's riverbanks. If the country fails to keep up with the water needs of its growing cities, those cities will be unable to sustain the robust economic growth that has become a magnet for global investment. Without sensible water policies, political agitation — like the recent controversies over Coca-Cola's use of groundwater in rural communities in southern and western India — will become more frequent and river-sharing negotiations with India's neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh more tense. To cope with its chronic water shortages, India employs electric groundwater pumps, diesel-powered water 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.

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