The Ganges River is seeped in holiness, tradition and pollution. Each year, millions of Hindu pilgrims travel to its riverbanks to bathe in its holy water and cremate their dead. I have a memory from last summer of floating in a rowboat along the river in Varanasi, watching the Ganga Aarti ceremony with one eye and burning funeral pyres with the other. You can view photos of the Ganges or read about its rituals, but being there is something else entirely because you feel it. This is a sacred place.
However, the Ganges is devastated by the effects of man-made pollution and climate change.
It is no surprise that Prime Minister Modi is leading a national effort to clean up the river. India, as a nation of 827 million Hindus, cares deeply about this river’s longevity.
Despite the political challenges that will invariably occur in the process of the Ganges river transformation, the national will for it to be repaired is there.
Mumbai’s Mithi River, however, is a bit of a different story. On Tuesday, we visited an office of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Mumbai to learn about the organization’s work to clean up the Mithi River.
The Mithi River runs through the center of Mumbai, beginning from the Powai Lake and
ending in the Arabian Sea. A good portion of Mumbai natives did not even know the Mithi existed until it lead to the 2005 floods, which took over 1,000 lives. This river, although not one of religious significance, is still filled with so much life that its cleanup is also of vital importance.
Mangroves grow on the banks of the river and it used to be an important source of stormwater drainage. The river runs alongside the slums of Mumbai, like Dharavi, and is now used as a sewer and a trash can.
Sitting in the presentation room, next to future economists, engineers and scientists, I noticed that all of my peers were engaged. The problems surrounding the Mithi River showcase how climate change requires all types of expertise to solve. The Mithi River cleanup needs diversity in expertise: from urban planning to political corruption to ecosystems.
Gautam, our presenter at ORF, ended the presentation with a photo of children swimming in the murky water of the Mithi. Smiling and laughing. Just before, he showed us a photo of brown and black waters converging, brown from sewage, black from petroleum.
“Mumbai only has three public swimming pools and that in itself is a crime,” he told us. “In this weather, everyone should have access to a swimming pool.”
Everyone deserves access to a swimming pool.
I listened and internalized. Although the thought had never before occurred to me, I realized he was right.
Environmentalism keeps proving to me that global warming is as much about human nature as it is about ecosystems.
On this trip, I have jumped at the chance to find air conditioning and familiar looking toilets and bottles of reliable drinking water. These are the realities of extreme heat and poor sanitation and they seem like obvious inequities.
When I grew up in Southern Arizona, May was a brutal month but I had goggles to save me. I spent a lot of my summers underwater, watching the feet of other swimmers as I only stuck my head above for breaths of air.
There is a list of human rights I think everyone should have. It includes electricity, the right to vote and a good education.
To that list, I add one more: a swimming pool in the summer.