Photography by Ritesh Shukla, NurPhoto/Getty
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Indian children play on a parched area of the shrunken Varuna River, a tributary of the Ganges River.

Photography by Ritesh Shukla, NurPhoto/Getty

How an Indian Guru Aims to Clean the World's Most Polluted Rivers

With a nationwide campaign, yogi Sadhguru raises awareness about India's threatened waterways, from the Ganges to minor streams.

Half a year ago, one man set off on a 5,778-mile journey to sound the alarm about India's ailing rivers.

The country's waterways have drawn media attention for some time. The Ganges, one of the most sacred rivers in the world, is also known as the dirtiest. Trash, raw sewage, and even dead bodies have polluted more than half of the rivers across the country, leading to a crisis of both water and sanitation.

So organizations have taken action. Jaggi Vasudev, known as Sadhguru, is a popular yogi who started the Isha Foundation, a spiritual organization, in 1992. In 2017, he wanted to bring attention to the daunting state of India's heavily polluted rivers, so he embarked on a nationwide campaign to revitalize the country's waterways.

On a month-long mission called the Rally for Rivers, Sadhguru gathered supporters to join him as he traversed 16 states and held more than 146 public events across India. He stirred up bipartisan support from governments, media, celebrities, and corporations, bringing together 160 million people to voice their concern about the country's fluvial lifelines.

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Sadhguru ended the Rally for Rivers campaign in Delhi at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium on October 2, 2017.

His endeavor culminated in Delhi on October 2, 2017, where he proposed an official revitalization policy to the country's Prime Minister and Ministry of Environment.

The campaign gained popular international support, and was lauded as a model for a global ecological movement. Now, with World Water Day on March 22, Sadhguru will speak about the campaign at the United Nations.

Planting Proposal

After the fanfare of the campaign, the organization proposed a plan to plant trees that would cover a border two-thirds of a mile wide and stretch on either side of the country's rivers. Sadhguru says this is the simplest way to revitalize the waterways, since planting trees can increase rainfall and replenish groundwater supplies. Plant roots stabilize river banks to prevent soil erosion, while their leaves shade the rivers to protect them from low flows and high temperatures.

Although the project received support, this blueprint is not without issue. Some say it would take too long for the planted trees to become economically beneficial for farmers. The proposed tree buffer would not address threats like dams, sand mining, and deforestation, and it wouldn't cut down on the pollution that flows directly into the rivers.

"The dilution can help because you can have less concentrated pollution," says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and a former freshwater fellow of the National Geographic Society. "Generally, it's not going to solve the pollution problem."

Some say that interlinking the rivers is a better alternative. This solution would connect Indian rivers through reservoirs and canals in an effort to more effectively manage water resources. But this, too, comes with caveats, as this also wouldn't stem pollution. A definitive solution has yet to be decided upon.

A Complicated Relationship

India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world. Its rivers are depleted by over-extraction, deforestation, pollution, and climate change. Major rivers are shrinking and rivers that were once perennial now only flow seasonally as India becomes more desert-like.

The volume in rivers is slowly decreasing, from about 182,824 cubic feet in 1951 to only 54,561 in 2011. To make matters worse, only a small percentage of this water is usable for human purposes—a mere 33,125 cubic feet. That number is expected to decrease to 28,746 cubic feet by 2025. This, in turn, is killing species and destroying natural resources.

The Ganges, historically relied on for agriculture, and the Indus Rivers are often listed as the most endangered in the world. Both are threatened by rampant pollutants and plans to build dams.

Agriculture is India's economic mainstay, and water is crucial to its people. But with the way things are, the country could face severe water shortages this century. This could mean doom for many farmers and long-term damage for the ecosystem.

Death Along the Ganges River Funeral pyres line the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, the most sacred place for Hindus.

Views of India's rivers are complicated, and some traditional beliefs say the Ganges is powerful enough to clean itself. Hinduism, the largest religion in India, dictates that the river is connected to the goddess Ganga, who is described as having heavenly origins.

For the past 10 years, photographer Giulio Di Sturco has been capturing the Ganges River through his Death of a River series. Seven years ago, he traveled to Kanpur, India, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Kanpur is home to thousands of tanneries, which have used the river as a dump for chemicals used to clean leather.

Nearby, Di Sturco saw people bathing and swimming in the river. When he asked them why they were splashing in the polluted water, he got an overwhelming response that they believed the polluted water was sinking to the bottom and coming up purified.

"The water looked like oil, and it was going directly into the Ganges," Di Sturco says. "They still believe that the Ganges has this kind of power to clean itself."

The Ganges: Inside an Indian Tannery Tanneries, like this one in Kanpur, are a vital part of India's leather textiles industry. In 2009, India produced 8 percent of the world's leather.

In the fall of 2013, photographer and videographer Pete McBride, along with professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, followed the Ganges River from snow to sea, a distance of some 1,500 miles. They captured these moments on video during a 45-day journey by foot, boat, bike, aircraft, rickshaw, bus, train, and even elephant.

Click here to learn more about Kanpur's tanneries and the journey down the Ganges.

PRODUCER AND VIDEOGRAPHER: Pete McBrideADDITIONAL VIDEOGRAPHY: Jake Norton, Dave Morton, and Ashley Mosher

Li Yutong, who completed the Rally for Rivers with Sadhguru's motorcade, had a similar experience 10 years ago when she saw the Hugli River in Kolkata.

"That river looks just like a cesspool, with all kinds of rubbish floating on it," Yutong says via email. "But people bathing and praying in the river look completely unaware of the pollution."

Flowing Forward

Around this time last year, a political idea emerged that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers should be granted personhood status. Intended to increase protection for rivers, this idea implied that polluting or otherwise damaging the rivers should be legally on par with assault or murder.

India's Supreme Court ruled this motion out a few months later, declaring the notion legally unsustainable. But this is not the first time rivers have been protected in this way, and it's possible the idea could pop up again for India, says Postel.

"The Ganges is one of those rivers where there's been an attempt to give the river a voice," Postel says. "These are ideas that have been around for a while [and] it's a movement that's gaining some steam."

As Di Sturco continued to visit the river in Kanpur over the years and photograph it, he gradually saw it become cleaner. (Read: "India Stems Tide of Pollution Into Ganges River")

"There is this awareness that is coming out," Di Sturco says. But where cleaning up the river is concerned, "I think they need to be really fast. The Ganges is really dying really fast."