My school assembled yesterday to watch a video about the "Agony of the Ganges". The film painted a rather grim picture of the river's future.
A main source of the Ganges, the Gangotri glacier, is melting faster than it is being replenished. Global warming is blamed for this. The glacier, they say, has been receding rapidly since about 1780, presumably the first time it was carefully surveyed. As a glacier recedes, it exposes more and more rock that heats up in the sun and melts the glacier even faster. For this reason, the recession that we witness today could be the advanced stages of a very natural melting process that has been in motion for ages. For example, 1780 falls toward the end of a period known as the Little Ice Age, which would presumably foster the growth of glaciers that were doomed to melt in the warmer weather that followed.
I am aware of a few different assessments of the glacier situation. If you read a few of the most visible sources on the web, the Gangotri glacier contributes somewhere between 25% and 75% of the water in the Ganges. The glacier is melting in an upriver direction at a rate of somewhere between 10 and 30 meters per year, and the rate is either decreasing slightly or increasing dramatically. I have no desire to join the numbers game here, since the only measurements I can access are second-hand and wildly inconsistent with one another, leaning in directions that support either of two agendas. I guess you don't get a Nobel Prize for Global Warming by being skeptical.
I am befuddled to find precise graphs of temperature dating back a thousand years. How many people have looked at this graph and never wondered how we know the average temperature of the entire earth (to the nearest hundredth of a degree or so) a full seven hundred years before the development of an accurate thermometer? Any process that leads to this graph must certainly rely on some assumptions big enough to nullify it.
To many Indians, the Ganges is not just a river, but the goddess Ganga, a giver of life and purity, possessing the ability even to wash away sins with a single drop of the holy water. Why do so many people want to worship something that washes sins away? Sadly and ironically, the water of the Ganges is hopelessly toxic and its use is linked to millions of deaths each year.
In the video, the scientists struggle to encourage a distinction between the 'symbolic purity' and the 'actual purity' of the river. Can such a distinction be? Surely a river gains human worship as a supernatural being by existing naturally as a conduit of life... might it not lose its deity by turning poisonous or by drying up? Many people who devote their lives in worship to the river are daily tainting it with their filth. The river receives the sewage of cities like Varanasi, the mortal remains of the devout, and the personal and industrial garbage of the very people who depend on it for life. They have the power to corrupt and destroy the object of their worship.
We find ourselves in a rather desperate position when once we realize that we can save or destroy our god.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." -Isaiah 44:16-17