Hindu worshipers brave toxic white foam to bathe in India’s sacred but polluted river

Hindu worshipers brave toxic white foam to bathe in India’s sacred but polluted river

One of the holiest rivers in India is covered in strips of bright white toxic foam.

That did not stop thousands of Hindus from entering the Yamuna, which runs through the capital New Delhi, for a religious festival this week.

Worshipers carried offerings to the sun god standing waist-deep in the river, while some bathed in the polluted waters. The children also played amid the toxic foam.

Chhath Puja is an ancient Hindu festival where rituals are performed to thank the Sun god for maintaining life on earth. Manish Rajput / SOPA / LightRocket via Getty Images

The foam is in part the result of poor management of waste from nearby industrial centers and New Delhi’s more than 20 million residents.

It is caused by a high level of phosphates and surfactants in the river, combined with a low level of oxygen in the water and lower temperatures in winter, Manoj Misra, the convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Campaign of a Living Yamuna), a group that campaigns to regenerate the polluted river, he told NBC News.

In addition to the worshipers who bathe in it, the river also provides more than half of New Delhi’s water.

The Yamuna has gotten dirtier over the years as most of the capital’s sewage flows into the waterway despite anti-pollution laws.Altaf Qadri / AP

Chhath Puja, the Hindu festival, ran from Monday to Thursday. It includes fasting and making offerings to the deity, Surya, while standing in the water.

Some worshipers saw hazardous waste as a test of their faith.

“What fear? If we are afraid, how can we pray?” Rajesh Kumar Verma told the Associated Press.

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The annual festival draws thousands of worshipers to the banks of the river, as well as international attention on India’s pollution problem.

The country contains 35 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world, while Delhi’s air quality tops the ranking of the most polluted cities in the world, according to 2020 statistics from IQAir, a Swiss air technology company that collects data. of air quality.

Winters in particular have become a time of health problems, when the city is covered in a toxic haze that darkens the sky and air pollution levels reach catastrophic levels.

Despite the pollution, devotees flock to the river every year for the festival.Money Sharma / AFP – Getty Images

India is also the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases.

President Narendra Modi pledged during this month’s COP26 summit that his country will reach zero net emissions by 2070, two decades later than experts estimate is needed to avoid a climate crisis.

The Yamuna, about 855 miles long, is a tributary of the Ganges. But despite its status as one of the holiest rivers in India, it is also among the most polluted.

Only 2 percent of the river passes through New Delhi, but the capital accounts for about 80 percent of the river’s pollution load.

Toxic foam was also detected in September, and the phenomenon is not limited to the Indian capital. In 2017, the foam came out of the second largest lake in Bangalore, in the south of the country, after monsoon rains.

City officials tried various means of getting rid of the foam before the festival, including the deployment of 15 boats to drive it away, the laying of bamboo nets and the deployment of water sprinklers, according to the Indian Express newspaper. His efforts seemed to have little effect.

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A vast stretch of the Yamuna River is covered with a snow-like foam.Money Sharma / AFP – Getty Images

About a third of Delhi’s sewage is not treated before entering the Yamuna every day. But any improvement in water quality is likely years away.

New sewage treatment plants and other improvement works to fully trap sewage entering the Yamuna are expected to be completed by 2023, according to a report by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee released in September.

Misra, the activist, said policies must change to ensure that no raw sewage or industrial sewage enters the river.

Associated Press contributed.

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