India’s daunting challenge: There’s water everywhere, and nowhere

A 2,400-mile trek across India reveals the allure of its sacred rivers—and a crisis that threatens a way of life.

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A man bathes away sin in the Ganges—amid a swirl of marigold offerings, plastic trash, and fecal waste. The river, sacred to Hindus and a vital resource to areas with large populations and little infrastructure, is one of the most polluted on Earth.
This story appears in the August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

‘Do you do magic tricks?’

It is the villagers of Rajasthan. They watch us pass in the hot light of the Thar Desert. We are unwashed, covered in coarse dust, darkened by sun: charred scarecrows trudging across India with a cargo donkey. Local people mistake us for vagabond performers, traveling quacks, circus nomads. They believe we are sorcerers. The answer to their question is: Yes, of course. We carry magic. But then, so does everyone.

It lies in water.

Human beings are mobile wells of mildly salty water. As every schoolchild knows, our bodies contain roughly the same percentage of water that covers the Earth’s surface. Such harmonies are no mystery. We are water animals born onto a water planet. Water is everywhere and nowhere. It is a restless element—unstill, on the move, always shifting its physical state from gas to liquid to solid and back again.

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The Guru Nanak Dev coal-burning power plant in Bathinda, Punjab, shut down in 2017 after 43 years. It helped power the state’s mammoth irrigation needs, but it also blanketed Bathinda with coal ash, causing nasal, eye, and respiratory complaints and damage to local ecosystems.

One oxygen atom. Two atoms of hydrogen.

Water molecules are bent like an arrow tip. Like an elbow. This helps give water a certain polarity, an infinitesimal charge on each end. This is how it collectively shapes our reality. It is the enchanted solvent and glue of our tangible world. It is the compound that both dissolves and binds our brain cells, mountain ranges, the steam wafting from our morning tea, and tectonic plates.

And yet there is so little to drink! The salty oceans hold roughly 97 percent of all the water on the globe. The poles and glaciers, though melting under the effects of climate change, lock up about 2 percent. Only an absurdly small droplet of the world’s total supply, less than one percent, is available for human survival: liquid fresh water. And yet, we squander this treasure like fools lost in a desert.

I am walking across the world. Over the past seven years I have retraced the footsteps of Homo sapiens, who roamed out of Africa in the Stone Age and explored the primordial world. En route, I gather stories. And nowhere on my foot journey—not in any other nation or continent—have I encountered an environmental reckoning on the scale of India’s looming water crisis. It is almost too daunting to contemplate.

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Homes, temples, and narrow alleyways in Varanasi’s Old Quarter are demolished for a beautification project that will give pilgrims and tourists easier access to the Ganges. The workers who wield pickaxes and sledgehammers earn meager wages. The government offers compensation to displaced residents.

The world’s second most populous country, home to more than 1.3 billion people and a landscape defined by iconic rivers—the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and all their mighty tributaries—now teeters at the edge of a water emergency with unknowable consequences. Roughly a hundred million people in 21 Indian megacities, including Delhi, Bengaluru (Bangalore), and Hyderabad, may gulp their last groundwater dry by the end of this year. Farmers in northern India’s Punjab, an important Asian breadbasket, complain that their relentlessly overpumped water tables are dropping by 40, 60, even a hundred feet in a single generation. And the problem doesn’t end with supply. Pollution in the form of industrial waste, urban sewage, and agricultural runoff has poisoned entire river systems. In total, some 600 million people—roughly half India’s population—live without enough clean water. Meanwhile, 20 million human beings are born every year in India, each requiring water to live.

I trek for nearly a year and a half across the river plains of northern India. I plod over concrete highway overpasses, balance atop railroad bridges, and sit on my pack in tippy canoes, navigating river after river. There are hundreds. Each one, according to Hinduism, is sacred—a deity even. (The Ganges, or Ganga in Hindi, is a pale goddess depicted with as many as four arms, riding a crocodile.) The future of India churns within their silty currents.

“Will there be a magic show?” ask the people of the Thar.

Children skip alongside us, barefooted, laughing, squinting up against the desert sun. Sentinel khejri trees throw pale silver shadows onto the yellow ocher sands. The local wells are poisoned by too much iron and fluoride.

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The hands of Resham Singh, a 59-year-old carpenter in Punjab, are gnarled from arthritis. Doctors say it may have been caused by exposure to water tainted by fertilizers and pesticides. Heavy use of chemicals in the 1960s to late 1970s brought India out of famine and into its green revolution, but Singh’s village, Mari Mustafa, has high cancer rates.

Magic? Sure. Let us call it the grand vanishing act.

On the burned flats around Sambhar Salt Lake, in a dying wetland outside Jaipur, we spot hundreds of ragged figures moving in the distance. Hour after hour they walk backward, yanking wooden rakes over the white plain. Women salt workers. The quicksilver heat swallows up their spindly legs, delivers them back again. Infernal abracadabra. But it isn’t, really. It’s just us in a waterless world.

The Indus: River of rivers

India—from indos in Greek, derived from hind in Persian, originating from the Sanskrit word sindhu, meaning river.

Where is the fabled Indus—river of rivers?

Where can one locate this immensely long, brawny waterway, born in the glaciers of Tibet—a gigantic, supple, living, liquid entity whose basin sprawls across nearly half a million square miles of the Earth—a nurturer of ancient civilizations, a binational lifeline for millions of farmers in India and Pakistan? As I walk across the Indian state of Punjab, finding it is no simple task.

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Women strain to haul precious water from a well in Dongra, in the desert state of Rajasthan. Wells such as this replaced ancient stepped structures, where women had to walk down hundreds of stairs to reach available underground water.

I join Arati Kumar-Rao, an environmental photographer, slogging the back roads south of Amritsar. Five large tributaries of the Indus ribbon across northwestern India. The Jhelum. The Chenab. The Ravi. The Beas. The Sutlej. We seek out the Beas. Soon we are lost. We blunder into a labyrinth of industrial agriculture.

Each day is a furnace. We sweat around endless, steaming quadrangles of wheat. We pass Sikh temples topped with airy white domes, where volunteers offer simple meals of dal and rice to all passersby. We dodge armadas of chugging tractors. Each blasts Punjabi pop music at the sky through loudspeakers lashed to the operator’s chair. Why? It’s impossible to say. Can the drivers hear the music over their roaring engines? Aliens flying above Punjab would look down in wonder—with fingers plugging their ears. Cults of deaf humans (they would think) are performing some tireless ritual: etching the land in circles with machines, serenading the cosmos. But no: They are simply Punjabi farmers at work.

And then, dimly, I understand. We have found the Indus already! For days—weeks—we have been walking within the diffused presence of the river. Its currents have been diverted, bled off, channeled, diffused, parsed into countless canals, pipes, weirs, and furrows. This human-built capillary system has rendered the ancient green channels of the Indus tributaries largely irrelevant as geographical entities. Each of Punjab’s billions of ripe wheat heads carries a drop of the Indus watershed in atomized form.

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Women wash laundry and collect water on Majuli Island, in the Brahmaputra River, in Assam. A large river island, at one time more than 300 square miles in area, Majuli formed at the turn of the 17th century when an earthquake and flooding rerouted the river. With climate change affecting India’s monsoons and causing rapid erosion of Majuli’s shores, the island has shrunk to less than 200 square miles today.

India was an early warrior in the green revolution. High-yield seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, tractors, and motorized well pumps have hugely increased crop yields since the 1960s. Once the poster child for famines, India feeds itself today. Its farmers sell the world torrents of grains and fruits. But this stunning victory against hunger has come at a steep cost. Agricultural chemicals pollute the tributaries of the Indus, possibly contributing to hot spots of diseases such as cancer. And the bill has come due for decades of unsustainable harvests: a staggering loss of finite quantities of groundwater. Farming is chancy in Punjab. Millions are fleeing, emigrating to the Middle East, North America, elsewhere.

“It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed,” Kumar-Rao hollers on a canal road whining with tractors pulling house-size bags of chaff. She’s spent years documenting the strip-mining of India’s water resources. “Our denial is a form of mass blindness.” Kumar-Rao wants to find another blind creature, the endangered Indus River dolphin—Platanista gangetica minor—a freshwater cousin of the famed sea mammal.

“There are no bhulan here anymore!” a dapper man calling himself Major Hindustani declares near the Harike Barrage. Bhulan is the local name for the Indus River dolphin.

Major Hindustani is a trick motorcycle rider. He works with a small traveling circus. With shirtsleeves rolled to display bulging biceps, he performs stunts for us—perching one-legged on the seat of his moving Royal Enfield—as we watch, stunned, on a quiet, muddy, relict bank of the Beas River. Walking India is like this. You meet all sorts of characters in unlikely places. But Major Hindustani turns out to be blind too. Kumar-Rao emits a squeal. She spots dolphins offshore. A cow and her calf. They rise and fall in the glossy brown currents of the Beas, breaking the surface with a sound like a soft kiss.

A recent survey suggests that no more than 11 Indus River dolphins live in the Beas.

Paul Salopek’s route

across the world

Completed

Planned

route

INDIA

Susceptible to drought and flooding, the Ganges Plain is crowded and vulnerable

More than 400 million people live in the Ganges Plain, where large rivers such as the Ganges, Yamuna, and Ghaghara are fed by Himalayan tributaries. Seasonal variations in snow and glacial meltwater, along with unpredictable monsoons, make the region dangerously prone to flooding and droughts.

Vulnerability to drought

Low

High

Enters India

Feb. 27, 2018

New

Delhi

Paul Salopek’s

walking route

Leaves India

July 29, 2019

400 mi

400 km

Vulnerability to flood

Low

High

New

Delhi

Paul Salopek’s

walking route

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF

SOURCE: WHYMAP GWV, BGR & UNESCO 2015

Susceptible to drought and flooding, the Ganges Plain is crowded and vulnerable

Completed

Planned

route

More than 400 million people live in the Ganges Plain, where large rivers such as the Ganges, Yamuna, and Ghaghara are fed by Himalayan tributaries. Seasonal variations in snow and glacial meltwater, along with unpredictable monsoons, make the region dangerously prone to flooding and droughts.

INDIA

Enters India

Feb. 27, 2018

Vulnerability to drought

Vulnerability to flood

Amritsar

Lahore

Low

High

Low

High

Populated area

Paul Salopek’s

walking route

Thar

Desert

New Delhi

New Delhi

March 6, 2019

Looksan

July 17, 2018

Jaipur

Varanasi

Oct. 10, 2018

Seondha

Kolkata

(Calcutta)

Nov. 1, 2018

Prayagraj

(Allahabad)

Leaves India

July 29, 2019

200 mi

200 km

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: LANDSCAN; WHYMAP GWV, BGR & UNESCO 2015

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Author Paul Salopek rows along a section of the Ganges in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city. Although the murky water carries the ashes of some 30,000 people whose bodies are cremated there each year, the faithful believe it is pure enough to drink.

The Chambal: Common injustice

Given enough time, water defeats almost anything. Stone. Iron. Bone. Rivers saw through the stratigraphy of time itself. Yet patriarchy endures.

What is the most common injustice seen on a walk across the world?

Not the suppression of ethnic minorities. Not intolerance rooted in religion. Not income inequality. No: It is the exclusion of women from humanity’s ledger of rewards and opportunities. No society is completely immune. Half of the well over seven billion Homo sapiens alive today are denied equal access to political power, made to work harder, and compensated less—because they have two X chromosomes.

“Don’t get me started,” says Priyanka Borpujari, an independent reporter who joins the walk through the scenic Chambal River watershed in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. “I’m the token ‘brown women’s issues’ writer at many journalism conferences. Can’t I be something else? An economics writer? A political analyst? A foreign correspondent?”

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A groom is carried to his wedding aboard an elephant draped in colorful fabrics and surrounded by dancing celebrants in Singhana, Rajasthan. Thousands of marriage ceremonies take place across northern India during the wedding season from September until February. Wedding dates and times in Hindu communities are suggested by astrologers.

Before reaching the pink sandstone of the Chambal hills, we pause at a rice farm. It’s managed exclusively by women. In testosterone-sodden India, this is interesting.

“We run things here. It is a necessity,” says Saroj Devi Yadav, the flinty, 62-year-old matriarch. “All the men are away working in the city.”

Yadav’s husband delivers restaurant food in distant Jaipur. Yadav and her two teenage granddaughters stay home to water the fields. They cut fodder. They herd the cows and buffalo. They organize shipments of milk to the city in tin cans slung across motorbikes. It is much the same at nearby farms. As the sun drops over her tiny green domain, Yadav shares her tea and curry.

“I got married at 13,” she says, flicking away the memory with her hand. “Things were different then. Nobody asked us girls. Today the girls get many more choices. They marry later.”

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Ferries on the Brahmaputra River bring workers from remote villages to the busy town of Dhuburi, in the state of Assam. Waterways provide the largest and least expensive mode of transport for people and goods in India.

It is an old story: the disruption of urbanization. The collision of diverse peoples in booming megacities cracks open age-old gender barriers. Yet in India, where up to two-thirds of the agricultural workforce are women, barely 13 percent of Indian women actually own land. Women carry the countryside’s water. But India’s natural resources remain cupped firmly in the hands of men.

The Chambal flows clean. It forms a sanctuary for gharials, the long-snouted crocodilians of India. The river’s craggy headwaters once sheltered India’s most famous woman bandit, Phoolan Devi, a Robin Hood figure who is said to have killed some 20 rival gunmen in a shootout.

“Hey!” Borpujari shouts.

It’s a fat man steering an expensive SUV along a hot ribbon of blacktop. He brakes in front of us. He blocks our way. He films us out his window with a phone: two people among millions wandering the parched roadsides of India. Borpujari raises a hand.

“Did you ask our permission?” she demands.

“I didn’t know”—the man huffs—“that I needed permission.”

Borpujari plants herself at his window. She assumes a combative stance that—she later admits—she hates. She tells him levelly, “You need permission.”

The Betwa: Sand miners

I walk east for months. I move through the long golden core of Indian afternoons.

My GPS track unspools across the lean cow belt, through Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, threading hamlets so forsaken by time they likely haven’t seen a foreigner since independence in 1947. (“Are you an Englishman?” people ask.) I sleep on plank tables at roadside eateries called dhabas, or in rope beds in farmers’ homes, or at mosques and Hindu temples. Without even knowing it—India’s wrinkled river plains are smoothed by millennia of plowing—I inch from one watershed to another. There are dozens. They now feed the Ganga.

At a place called Seondha, an enormous fortress crumbles beside a placid bend of the Sindh River. The towering medieval gates bristle with foot-long iron spikes: defense against ramming by war elephants. A last descendant of the Bundela Rajputs who built the stronghold still lives in a rampart. Camped within its darkened walls for a night, I never see him.

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Heavy machinery is used to scoop sand from the Son riverbed in Bihar. Although this operation may be legal, sand mining is often done illegally under cover of darkness. Sand supplies India’s booming construction industry, but excessive mining disrupts rivers and destroys habitats of endangered species such as river dolphins and crocodile-like gharials.

By the sluggish brown currents of the Betwa River, I meet sand miners. They form a ragged army of lean men scooping out the riverbed with shovels and mechanical excavators. The sand may be trucked to construction sites as far as Lucknow and New Delhi, some 300 miles away. Many sand-mining operations are illegal. Sand is a lucrative commodity in India. It fuels a building boom, and a black market, that is both preyed upon and protected by goons, even as the plundering destroys aquatic habitats and disrupts hydrology. (A UN study calculates that humankind’s growing appetite for humble construction sand—more than 40 billion tons a year—is double the volume of sediments being replenished naturally by the sum of the world’s rivers.) Sand-mining mafiosi have killed law enforcement officers who’ve tried to halt the gutting of India’s rivers. They’ve murdered reporters who have exposed the forbidden practice of excavating waterways.

“Keep walking,” snaps my latest walking partner, river conservationist Siddharth Agarwal, as the miners shout at us to stop.

We feign deafness. We lope down to the Betwa’s banks, hail a passing fisherman, fling our rucksacks into his dinghy, and paddle to the opposite side. We walk into the dark—cranking a 25-mile day to reach a village where bonfires, drums, and chanting announce a Hindu festival. The astonished celebrants welcome us. They prepare dal and roti. They lay out charpais, woven beds, for sleeping. This reflexive hospitality is universal along my path in rural India, a land that’s hosted foot pilgrims since the Bronze Age. Agarwal asks, gingerly, about sand mining.

The villagers shrug. “What can be done?”

Mafiosi, politicians, cronies—they control life. True, the Betwa, stripped to its bedrock, floods more erratically than before. And yes, the unpredictable monsoons—climate change—have made farming even more marginal. People must dig thousands of small, rain-fed ponds to water their puckered fields. But the government is planning a dramatic rescue: diverting an entire river, the Ken, into the Betwa’s channel to replenish its shrunken flow.

“River linking,” Agarwal sighs. “False hopes.”

India has earmarked some $2 billion to implement a controversial interlinking-of-rivers scheme: a massive water transfusion program that proposes to graft 30 major Indian rivers through more than 9,000 miles of concrete canals to ease the water crisis. Braiding the Ken to the Betwa will be the test case. Engineers plan to siphon off the Ken’s “excess” monsoonal flows and funnel them to the “drier” Betwa. Several dams and barrages flooding 35 square miles of land are needed for this engineering to work. Environmentalists delivered a court battle.

“Where is all of this excess water?” Raghu Chundawat, a leading Indian conservationist, asks me sourly in nearby Panna National Park, a sanctuary for endangered tigers. “The government won’t share its flow data. I don’t think even they know what the impacts will be.”

One known effect of turning the river gods into plumbing pipes: Most of the land submerged by the Ken-Betwa project lies within the tiger reserve.

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The Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu festival, brings pilgrims to one of four river sites in India every three years. In 2019 crowds gathered in Prayagraj (Allahabad), at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. Day and night, tens of thousands thronged the temporary bridges spanning the Ganges.

The Ganga: Holy river

I hike the banks of Ma Ganga—Mother Ganges—until her milewide currents arc north, cutting like a shining steel blade across the yellow plains to Varanasi. Hinduism’s holiest city is clouded in brick dust. Thousands of workers pummel the walls of Varanasi’s Old Quarter with sledgehammers and crowbars, leveling antique alleyways and lopsided buildings for an urban beautification plan. Residents are evicted. The government gives them cash. Few appear happy. Reincarnation is hard.

Varanasi is known among devout Hindus as Kashi, or the place “where the supreme light shines.” The holy city’s 88 stone ghats tumble down to the Ganga in beautifully worn steps. At their bottom, devotees wash away sins in murky river currents, drinking and bathing in water that contains hundreds of times the safe levels of fecal bacteria. Tens of thousands of pilgrims each year come to die and be burned at the ghats. To be cremated in Varanasi is the surest way to achieve moksha, escape from the painful cycle of life and death. Dead babies and holy men without stain are exempted from the pyres. Their bodies instead are tied to flotsam and floated downriver. Or sunk in the Ganga with stones.

I sit and watch everything human—the brilliant garlands of marigolds and the feces—merge in the Ganga. The river is inky here with bone ash, a colossal stream that itself resists cleansing. At dawn, swallows spear the bronze air. I think of my dead and my wars. Varanasi is a good place to await the creation or destruction of the world. Or better, to get up and walk. Proclaim the devotional poems of Basavanna:

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,

things standing shall fall,

but the moving ever shall stay.

The Brahmaputra: Who is Indian?

The river is a road.

In Bihar I walk the drought-strangled Son. In West Bengal, it’s the dam-starved Tista. The fabled Brahmaputra in Assam runs fat with rains and the runoff from disastrously melting glaciers. Men and women who look a thousand years old tread its sand banks, carrying baskets of rice. Past beached canoes. Past paddy fields shining in the hazy sunlight like old mirrors with their silver backing peeled off. The Brahmaputra slides by, a 1,800-mile conveyor of water that cascades over the curve of the world. Carrying billions of invisible fish, the click and hum of village noise, fear.

“Terrorists,” hiss village drunks.

Siddharth Agarwal and I are questioned often in northeastern India. It’s a sign of the times. Pakistan and India have clashed again over the contested Muslim territory of Kashmir. Xenophobia spikes. The Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi helps stoke it. In Assam I meet a friendly woman, Rupali Bibi, who hides like a fugitive. Why? Because she, a descendant of Bangladeshi Muslims who migrated to India nearly a hundred years ago, may be deported.

“A policeman brought a ‘foreigner notice’ to my house,” Bibi, a rice farmer in her 40s, tells me in her cane-thatched home on the floodplain of the Brahmaputra. “He said, ‘You are a suspicious person.’”

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The family of Ramesh Pandey agreed to be photographed as they prepared to cremate him in Prayagraj on the bank of the Yamuna. His ashes will flow into the Ganges. Hindus believe that cremation at a holy site frees the soul from the cycle of life and death.

Like nearly two million others in the state of Assam, she has been excluded from the polarizing National Register of Citizens. The authorities don’t accept her documents. The Indian government, meanwhile, offers a path to citizenship for religious refugees—barring Muslims. And during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 200 million Indian Muslims are demonized as disease carriers by right-wing Hindu politicians. Mobs armed with cricket bats reportedly target Muslims in Bengaluru.

Who is Indian? Who isn’t? Can the diverse and secular India of Gandhi and Nehru survive a slide into tribal populism? It is impossible to say. The cosmos of rivers webbing India, of course, is mute on such matters.

I slog my last miles out of India through the summer monsoon. The rivers of Manipur, hard by the Myanmar border, rage white. Green hills speak the sibilant language of unbounded water—the rumble of waterfalls, the sighing of countless streams, the hard-knuckled rap of rain on tin roofs. Exhilarating sounds. Plucking at leeches, I recall the strangest river I encountered in India: the Saraswati. A “lost river” of myth exalted in Vedic scriptures. Some scientists believe it stopped flowing thousands of years ago, diverted by an earthquake or perhaps evaporated by climate change. I crossed its supposed bed in the desert of Rajasthan. A broad gully of dusty cobbles. A hot wind. Not a molecule of water visible. Drought-stunned farmers told me that government engineers were boring test wells nearby. They hoped to prove the river was real.

Follow National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s walk around the world at OutofEdenWalk.org and on Twitter (@PaulSalopek). Recipient of the World Press Photo of the Year award and many others, John Stanmeyer has been documenting parts of Paul Salopek’s journey for National Geographic. He has photographed more than 16 stories for the magazine. Follow him at www.instagram.com/johnstanmeyer.
The nonprofit National Geographic Society, working to conserve Earth’s wild places, is helping fund the Out of Eden Walk project.