The World's Most Polluted River Revealed in Photos

A recent high court ruling in India that gives the Ganges personhood status may lead to environmental redemption.

An image of a woman walking on water might inspire awe under normal circumstances, but in this case it arouses something that feels more like horror.

Photographer Giulio Di Sturco captured scenes like this one in his Death of a River series: a woman traversing the Ganges River, ambling along on a bridge of muddied sandbags and waste, to show the extent of degradation that has afflicted this holy body of water.

“The Ganges is a prime example of the unresolved contradiction between man and the environment,” says Di Sturco. It is a river intimately connected with every aspect of Indian life—a source of water, energy, and livelihood for more than 500 million people who live along its banks.

Hindus around the world have worshipped the river for centuries, their beliefs stemming from the story of the self-cleaning river god Genga. The same cleansing properties cannot be said for the river itself, whose waters are poisoned by millions of gallons of industrial effluents and raw sewage every day. Not to mention the hundreds of bodies that are cremated, or sometimes simply wrapped in muslin, and tossed into the river daily.

But things are changing for the “Ganga Mata,” or divine mother, after a recent high court ruling in India. The Uttarakhand High Court has declared the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, “living persons.”

The decision means that polluting or damaging the rivers could be considered the legal equivalent to harming a person. Although environmentalists welcomed the ruling, the question remains whether it will be enforced, and if so to what extent.

The legal recognition of the Ganges as a person comes after more than thirty years of government efforts to restore it, with limited success. Official estimates of the amount spent on the efforts vary from six hundred million dollars to upwards of three billion dollars.

But the recent ruling may increase the possibility of community involvement. If a citizen can bring a case to court representing the Ganges, that could become a powerful way for communities and activists to protect it.

An emaciated-looking horse waits to transport Hindu devotees along the banks of the Ganges River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

A woman collects mustard leaves in a field across from an oil refinery along the Ganges River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

An iceberg of foam forms from the chemical waste dumped by factories along the Yamuna River, which is a tributary of the Ganges River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

A homeless boy fishes for coins using a string and a magnet along the Yamuna River in Delhi.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

A city built of tents can be seen from above, all in preparation for Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering, in Allahabad, India.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

The largest religious gathering on Earth, Kumbh Mela, is held every 12 years on the banks of the Triveni Sangam—the confluence of three rivers, including the Ganges.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Hindu devotees bathe in the Ganges during Kumbh Mela, which they believe will wash away their sins.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Piles of laundry from hotels lay in the mud along the Yamuna River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Every year during the dry season, the Ganges waters on the Bangladesh Border dry up due to the closure of the Farakka Dam on the Indian border.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

A woman crosses a small channel of the Ganges on a submerged bridge made of waste.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Hindu devotees walk into the waters of the Ganges to bathe during Kumbh Mela, India.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

One of the tributaries of the Ganges near Haridwar becomes arid and bone dry during the hot season.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Grey clouds billow out of smokestacks in the distance along a dry tributary of the Ganges River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Chemicals spill out from one of the tanneries of Kanpur, where they pour into the Ganges.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

A group of musicians gets ready to entertain the crowds that are waiting for the Sadhu, or holy person, at Kumbh Mela.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

An early morning scene on the river.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

Header Image: Hindu devotees along the banks of the Ganges get ready to bathe in the water of the sacred river. PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO, INSTITUTE

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