Dirty, Sacred Rivers explores South Asia's increasingly urgent water crisis, taking readers on a journey through North India, Nepal and Bangladesh, from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal. The book shows how rivers, traditionally revered by the people of the Indian subcontinent, have in recent decades deteriorated dramatically due to economic progress and gross mismanagement. Dams and ill-advised embankments strangle the Ganges and its sacred tributaries. Rivers have become sewage channels for a burgeoning population.
To tell the story of this enormous river basin, environmental journalist Cheryl Colopy treks to high mountain glaciers with hydrologists; bumps around the rough embankments of India's poorest state in a jeep with social workers; and takes a boat excursion through the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests at the end of the Ganges watershed.
She lingers in key places and hot spots in the debate over water: the megacity Delhi, a paradigm of water mismanagement; Bihar, India's poorest, most crime-ridden state, thanks largely to the blunders of engineers who tried to tame powerful Himalayan rivers with embankments but instead created annual floods; and Kathmandu, the home of one of the most elegant and ancient traditional water systems on the subcontinent, now the site of a water-development boondoggle.
Colopy's vivid first-person narrative brings exotic places and complex issues to life, introducing the reader to a memorable cast of characters, ranging from the most humble members of South Asian society to engineers and former ministers. Here we find real-life heroes, bucking current trends, trying to find rational ways to manage rivers and water. They are reviving ingenious methods of water management that thrived for centuries in South Asia and may point the way to water sustainability and healthy rivers.
Written over years of travel throughout India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, environmental journalist and Fulbright scholar Colopy's "water policy travelogue through the greater Ganges basin" challenges the reader to examines the interaction between traditional practice and governmental bureaucracy, and the paradox of a culture that considers its great rivers sacred even as it overwhelms them with increasing amounts of filth from modernization and population growth. Colopy offers a whirlwind tour both beautiful and troubling, traveling with researchers, politicians, policymakers, locals, and displaced environmental victims who share their opinions and experiences with the results of complicated, often mismanaged water policy. The dense, well-researched book highlights the challenges in each region. In Delhi, toilet technology and sewage treatment failures are key issues, while the Kathmandu Valley faces flood risk from global-warming induced glacial melting even while the hiti water systems, which date back to 550 B.C. dry and fail, and the massive Melamchi engineering project, which would pipe water 16 miles into the valley, has been mismanaged for more than 30 years. Across South Asia, the ILR (interlocking of rivers) canal concept is hitting multinational stumbling blocks due to politics and conflicting ideas of what it means to "own" water. Colopy interacts as a Westerner in the South Asian world with grace, and shares what she has learned with thoughtful clarity. Photos.