While pollution of the Ganges appears to be an insoluble problem, demand for water – driven mainly by farming – is actually drying out certain sections of the river. Solutions exist but they require a complete rethink of current institutional frameworks and business models.

For hundreds of millions of Indians, the Ganges is a sacred river, personified by the goddess Ganga. It flows from the snow-capped Himalayas to the Sundarbans Delta in the Bay of Bengal. But the Ganges is dying and its waters have been subjected to massive pollution over several decades. An estimated one billion litres of untreated waste water enter the river every single day. Moreover, much of its water is diverted to irrigate rice paddies and wheat fields in the plains. There has been a steady increase in volumes pumped from underground aquifers which is drying out sections of the river during certain periods of the year. For all of these reasons, a unique system of biodiversity is in the process of being lost.

If the Ganges is to live again, all stakeholders – including those from the private sector – need to face up to their responsibilities and make a long-term commitment to making less water go farther. The River will need to meet increased demand, using less water per inhabitant, in a region where climate change is set to take a considerable toll on water resources.

Treatment of waste water

Cleaning up the Ganges is a recurring theme in Indian politics. Numerous programmes have come and gone but for the moment, they have not even succeeded in stemming the pollution. The most recent project, “Namami Ganga” (national mission for a cleaner Ganges) was launched by the Indian Government in 2014 with a budget of over USD 3 billion to be spent over five years. Why would “Namami Ganga” succeed where other programmes have failed to make any inroads? The current government claims that the programme’s integrated vision is the key to its success: all ministers are involved together with the local communities living along the river.

Considerable public investment has gone into equipping cities along the Ganges with waste water treatment facilities. French Groups such as Veolia are present in this rapidly growing market but the European model is difficult to adapt to Indian cities subjected to the pressures of rapid – largely unplannable – urbanisation, which rarely have a proper fully-covered sewage system (especially medium-sized cities) and where maintenance capabilities are limited. It is very tempting to invest in state-of-the-art waste water treatment facilities but the impact will be minimal if most of the waste water does not even get to the treatment plants.

Researchers from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) “Water, Earth and Ecosystems” programme have analysed the situation in three cities with populations of around 100,000 along the Ganges as part of the “Healthy Ganga” programme. Although most households are equipped with toilets, even when sceptic waste is actually collected, it invariably ends up in the river in an untreated state. And yet, this problem of untreated sceptic waste does not even figure on the “Namami Ganga” roadmap.

Decentralised solutions exist, such as co-composting, which makes it possible to both treat and extract value from the waste and to recover at least some of the cost of treating sceptic discharges at municipal level. Research-development into using “constructed wetlands” in waste water treatment is progressing apace. For example, as part of the “Water4crops” Indo-European research project, discharges from a sugar plant are treated via artificial wetlands that produce water for the village from the waste water retention pond.

These small-scale decentralised models have the advantage of flexibility and short operational lead-times. However, is this a suitable potential market for the big private sector players in the waste water treatment sector? Do corporations consider such local, decentralised and small-scale innovations as simply corporate social responsibility initiatives or as genuine market development opportunities?

Demand for water: the preponderance of the agriculture sector

On the demand side, the approach to water management also needs to change radically, especially in agriculture which is by far the heaviest water user and accounts for approximately 80% of total consumption. Agriculture not only needs to develop more efficient irrigation systems (more “crop per drop”), it also needs to grow less water-intensive crops.

The Indian Ministry for Agriculture has just launched the “Har Khet Ko Pani” programme to provide every farm with access to irrigation (only half of all Indian farms have irrigation systems at present). However, developing irrigation by subsidising infrastructure or investing in big irrigation projects as in the past is not necessarily a guarantee of success. Will this programme not favour big farms or accelerate depletion of the ground-water table which is already falling by 20 centimetres a year in certain parts of the Ganges Basin?

Although access to irrigation is one of the vectors for combating rural poverty, the equipment currently on the market is often too expensive – or unsuitable – for smallholders. Supporting R&D that focuses specifically on small-scale farming makes much greater long-term sense than subsidising equipment that may not be suitable for all farms. International Development Enterprise-India (IDEI), for example, is a social enterprise currently developing low-cost drip irrigation solutions for small holdings (e.g., 100 m2 modules for example). Jain Irrigation System, India’s leading irrigation specialist, is also developing base-of-pyramid micro-irrigation systems with manual pumps. Solar-powered pumps, popular in off-grid regions such as Nepal, are also being taken up slowly but upscaling their use will be contingent on financing solutions adapted to small farming, as recommended by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The carrot and the stick: moving towards a smart eco-market

Unfortunately, the current agricultural model does not really encourage water conservation even though research has proven that more targeted and less water-intensive irrigation systems produce higher yields. Making farmers pay for water is the only rational solution going forward but the will to prove this does not yet exist. And yet, in a situation of hydric stress, water thrift will have to be rewarded and waste sanctioned.

Farming subsidy policies needs to be rethought as they are much too favourable to water-intensive crops like rice and sugar cane even though India is having to deal with an increasingly acute shortage of water. WWF India estimates that by replacing 15% of rice plantations in the Ganges region with sorghum, a traditional Indian cereal that uses eight times less water than rice, the water saved could be used to restore the Ganges’ ecosystems. But the market needs to promote these traditional cereals more effectively. Their popularity has actually plummeted in spite of their nutritional benefits and proven drought tolerance.

Another key issue is the increasing importance of hydro power in the Indian Himalayas – with an estimated potential of 150,000 megawatts, three-quarters untapped – that could do a lot to cut the country’s carbon footprint. However, as  this study published on 28 February 2017 suggests, this could have negative consequences on the Ganges’ water flows and in terms of food security. An analysis of the irrigation-hydro power nexus in the Northern Indian State of Uttarakhand recommends that even developers of small dams (i.e., <25MW) should liaise in a completely transparent manner in the pre-project phase with local populations in order to negotiate water flows and reduce the impact on irrigation networks. This would avoid current situations of deadlock in hydro power projects in Northern India.

Any initiatives that can help with more sustainable and equitable water resource management need to be encouraged and showcased and pollution needs to be sanctioned. But who has the authority and the resources needed to be able to quantify positive and negative contributions? What are the most realistic, easiest-to-deploy initiatives?

What is needed in this colossal project to restore the Ganges is a radical transformation of business and institutional models. Less excessive compartmentalisation and a more integrated vision of sustainable water resource management is required. More transparency and financial accountability is also needed at both political level and in the private sector and the role of consumer and citizen most not be forgotten.

Business has a major role to play in reducing pollution and promoting water conservation either through innovation or by making sustainable natural resource management a focal point of strategy. Aside from regulatory compliance, a company’s environmental and social record can be turned into a key marketing argument. Those visionary businesses that act as catalysts for responsible change will be the winners in the long term because nobody has a future in a region without water.