Hugli River Distributary

A Study of Health, Water and Pollution

Research Project with Christina Antiporda | Theories of Landscape Architecture | GSD | Fall 2012

The Ganges River begins in the mountains of the Himalayas and ends 2,525 km southeast in a complex system of distributaries connecting it to the Bay of Bengal. The basin is home to 8% of the world's population and holds major religious significance for close to a billion people. The Hugli River is a main distributary of the Ganges and flows through India's sole major riverine port city, Kolkata, in West Bengal. The Ganges has many problems, including pollution and flooding, all of which manifest on the Hugli River in Kolkata. Three factors affect the pollution, flooding and water problems of the Hugli distributary in particular. 

Hugli distributary

Pollution to the Hugli comes from four main sources: water burial, industry along the edge of the river, religious rituals and salt water infiltration from the sea.  

First, tectonic shifts of the Indo-Australian Plate subverting under the Eurasian Plate have shifted the main flow of water of the Ganges away from the Hugli River and towards the Meghna River. As the Indo-Australian Plate is moving northeast and under the Eurasian Plate, the Meghna (the eastern river) is slowing becoming deeper and floodplains around the river are increasing water flow over developed areas. 

Second, excessive pollution along the river is the direct result of body dumping, water burial ceremonies, bathing, waste material from industrial sites and sewer pipe outlets. As an extension of the Ganges, the Hugli River is regarded as sacred, leading to religious sites and rituals centering around the river. Some of these rituals pollute the river: water burial (a necessary ritual along the Ganges to carry Hindu people to the afterlife), bathing, and cremation ceremonies. In addition, pollution comes from body dumping (the most prevalent way to dispose of an unwanted body in India), and industrial sites. Additionally, a deficient number of water treatment plants in the urban areas result in unprocessed sewer pipe outlets (dumping hundreds of thousands of liters of raw sewage into the Hugli each day). 

Third, 84% of the total rainfall in the Ganges Basin falls during the monsoon season (June through September). Lack of infrastructure along the rivers and unresolved political initiative have led to both major flooding problems during the monsoon season and a deficit of water during the dry season. In particular, the treaty detailing the distribution of water from the Farrakka Barrage (connecting the Ganges to the Hugli and Padma rivers) favors the Meghna distributary, leaving the Hugli open to excess salination from the Bay of Bengal. 

These three factors have mad the Hugli a river beset with problems. The Hugli River is a major public health issue for Kolkata because hundreds of thousands of worshipers, bathers, and poor immerse themselves in the river daily to bathe, perform rituals, or use it as a bathroom. In addition, floods carry the polluted water far and wide throughout the city during monsoon season, resulting in the spread of disease and creating frequent outbreaks of cholera, cyclosporiasis, typhoid, and dysentery. 

The East Kolkata Wetlands is Kolkata's main system for cleaning polluted water, focusing mainly on the raw sewage from the city. The wetlands not only treat raw sewage, but provide resources for the surrounding communities to use such as fertilizer, fish, and vegetables. While this is a fabulous resource for Kolkata, it does not have the capacity to treat all of the pollution currently infection the Hugli River. 

Urban Condition around Hugli River | Kolkata, India

As an important port city, Kokata's urban networks weave together a hierarchy of canals for shipping, transportation, and transmission of treated and untreated water. These canals are juxtaposed with sewer lines, many of which deposit into the Hugli. A concentration of temples locates religious ritual locations along the river. Additionally, burial grounds facilitate the dumping of bodies into the sacred water. Ghats along the river are extremely common, bringing residents of the city, as well as those coming in for pilgrimage or religious festivals, into direct contact with the water. 

Hugli River Through Kolkata | Kolkata, India

Ninety percent of Kolkata's water resources are drawn from surface water sources. These are mainly composed of rivers, the primary of which is the Hugli. The Hugli River is beset with many problems, most of which happen around Kolkata. Industry is heavily present along the Hugli especially at the northern and southern ends of the urban regions. There are very few regulations concerning pollution along the river, leading factories (e.g. textile mills, chemical plants, distilleries, slaughterhouses, hospitals, tanneries) to dump harmful chemicals and waste directly into the water. As can be seen from the map above, these factories are located very close to (sometimes directly next to) religious sites and bathing ghats creating unsuitable conditions for people to be immersed in the water of the Hugli. In addition, many sewer pipes lead directly to the Hugli, often just upstream of a bathing site on the Hugli.

Hugli/Baghirati River & Padma/Meghna River | Hugli Distributary | Kolkata, India

The Farrakka Barrage controls the amount and timing of freshwater flowing from the Ganges down into its main distributaries: the Bhagirathi/Hugli River and the Padma/Meghna River. Historically, the Hugli was the main distributary of the Ganges. However, over the last 400 years a series of tectonic shifts of the Indo-Australian and Eurasian plates has shifted the water flow away from the Hugli and towards the Padma. In addition, sedimentation, pollution, trash, and silt from the entire Ganges watershed (the largest drainage basin in the world) is settling in the Hugli River further disrupting the flow of water down the channel. The Farrakka Barrage was constructed by India in 1975 as a way to protect Kolkata's water resources and decrease silt build up along the Hugli after the formation of the new country of Bangladesh. In 1991, after much debate, a 30 year agreement was signed between India and Bangladesh detailing the amount of water each country would receive. However, the terms of the agreement are detrimental to the heath of the Hugli River. India has two main seasons: the monsoon and the dry season. This leads to an incredibly uneven distribution of water over the year with discharge ranging from 2,000 m3/s  at the lowest to 70,000 m3/s at the highest. The terms of the deal require India and Bangladesh to each receive the same amount until a total of 40,000 m3/s is reached. If there is excess water after a total of 80,000 m3/s is reached, India receives the extra water during the monsoon season and Bangladesh receives it in the dry season. This leads to a surplus of water during the monsoon season (causing flooding) and a deficit of water during the dry season (causing silt build up). As a result of tectonic shifts, increased sedimentation, pollution, and bad politics, the Hugli river is also facing an increase in salination as there is not enough freshwater to keep the salt water from the Bay of Bengal from encroaching up the Hugli. 

Hugli River Distributary | Ganges River Basin | Kokata, India

The Hugli River is supplied with freshwater from Ganges through the Farrakka Barrage and saltwater from the Bay of Bengal. A treaty signed by India and Bangladesh determines how much fresh water is delivered to the Hugli (India) and the Padma (Bangladesh). The terms of the treaty, however, do not allow enough fresh water to travel down the Hugli to combat the salination from the Bay of Bengal. As a result, salt water from the Bay of Bengal travels much further up the Hugli River than in previous times resulting in heavy salination of water in heavily populated areas. In addition to increased salination of the Hugli River Distributary, pollution from sewers, body dumping, and industry also contaminated the waters. Religious sites dot the Hugli River (it is considered a continuation of the Ganges and therefore holy); the sites are often located downstream from sewers and industrial dumping locations causing water borne disease to be prevalent. These diseases range from Cholera to Japanese Encephalitis to Typhoid. In addition, floods carry these diseases further in times of excess rain such as the monsoon.  

Kali Temp Ghat | Hugli Delta Distributary | Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Ghats are located up and down rivers throughout India. They range in function and formality from bathing ghats (uncontrolled and unmaintained) to ghats for religious rituals (well maintained and controlled). Here, people bathing in the river are surrounded by trash as religious rituals offerings wash up on shore from the Hugli River. In addition to trash, the water of the Hugli is highly contaminated from unregulated industries along the upper part of the river (e.g. textile mills, chemical plants, distilleries, slaughterhouses, hospitals, tanneries); billions of liters of untreated raw sewage flow directly into the river; and the depositing of human bodies and cremated remains for religious ceremonies is common. This pollution is highly dangerous for people bathing and performing religious ceremonies in the river. Waterborne diseases are prevalent in Kolkata with frequent outbreaks of cholera, cyclosporiasis, tapeworms, typhoid, and dysentery. Large scale infrastructural projects are prevalent in Kolkata (as can be seen in the photo above regarding the bridge); however, projects dealing with the river are often blocked by religious groups citing that the river is holy and altering it would be disrespectful. 

Belur Math Temple | Hugli Delta Distributary | Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Temples are often located on the river's edges as many religious rituals and ceremonies center around water. The ghats picture above show people bathing in the holy river and releasing cremated remains of their loved ones. As a result, the Hugli is extremely polluted from these religious practices in addition to being contaminated from industries along the river and untreated raw sewage flowing into the river. While many large scale infrastructural projects are blocked by religious authorities (who cite these projects as destructive and disrespectful to the holy river), small scale projects are highly regulated by these authorities. For example, the ghats provide erosion control for the banks of the river as well as a vertical buffer for flood control during the monsoon season. Despite these small attempts to control the river, waterborne diseases from bathing and performing rituals in the river are prevalent in the area. 

East Kolkata Wetlands Filled | Hugli Delta Distributary | Kolkata, West Bengal, India

East Kolkata Wetlands in the process of draining for fertilizer harvest and maintenance of proper depth levels. 

Given the scarcity of formal wastewater treatment plants and the high water pollution, the East Calcutta Wetlands are an incredible resource for the city, constructed of both natural and man-made wetlands. The flat wetland beds accept water from the sewage canals, are treated with lime to increase the alkalinity of the water and decrease the coliform bacteria content. The pools are manually aerated to encourage plankton and zooplankton growth and fish are introduced to feed on excess plankton and rid the water of the remaining organic content from the raw sewage. Treated water is released on surrounding agricultural fields, the excess soil (harvested from the bottoms of the pools to keep them shallow) is used as fertilizer; fish and vegetables are thus generated and employment int he wetlands supports the urban populations. While the value of the wetlands in undeniable, the waste production and population density of the greater Kolkata region is too high for this to be the only mitigation for contaminated waters.