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The Ganges, India's holiest river, is also the most polluted, and plastic is the main culprit. Measures are now under way to control the flow of garbage and assess its relationship to poverty.
Do you drop a plastic bottle into the Ganges and where does it end up? A female team of engineers, explorers and scientists is about to find out by embarking on the first expedition to measure plastic debris in one of the world's most polluted waterways.
Following the Ganges River from where it empties into the Bay of Bengal to its source in the Himalayas, the National Geographic-backed expedition aims to better understand how plastic pollution travels from source to sea and to provide solutions to reduce the amount that ends up in the world's oceans.
The 2,525 km long Ganges is a river of extreme paradox: Although it is worshiped by a billion Hindus and is a source of water for approximately 400 million people, it is polluted with industrial runoff, untreated sewage and household waste. . It is also one of the 10 rivers responsible for 90% of the plastic that ends up in the sea.
The river is therefore a perfect starting point for measuring how plastic travels from land to rivers, and from rivers to ocean, says National Geographic Fellow and University of Georgia Associate Professor Jenna. Jambeck, who leads the expedition.
“We know that there is plastic in these river environments and that the plastic is heading into the ocean,” says environmental engineer Jambeck, whose previous research found that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year.
“But we don't know how far, for example, if someone threw a plastic bottle into the Ganges, where it ends. As far as it goes?
The 18-person team, with researchers from organizations including the Indian Wildlife Institute, the University of Dhaka, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), completed the first round of the expedition this spring to collect pre-monsoon plastic levels. .
In October, it will take the team two months to get back on the same route, traveling up and around the Ganges by boat, road and train, collecting post-monsoon pollution levels in air, water and sediment, and in species within and around the river. Local and national responses to pollution management will also be compared, as will the interactions and dependency of communities on the waterway, said marine biologist and expedition co-leader Heather Koldewey.
"The story of plastic is everywhere, it is well told now, what really matters is what we can do about it," says Koldewey, who is a member of National Geographic and an advisor to ZSL.
“A big part of our work is looking at the connection between plastic and poverty, as plastic has given people access to so many products that they could not get before, be it food packages or shampoo bags. But the environmental consequences of that have been enormous. "
Sampling the Ganges (seven miles at its widest) can be difficult, Koldewey added, with tidal waves causing dizziness and plastic debris present at almost every point along the river, from plastic bottles and carry bags to offerings. plastic religious.
“This expedition is a fitting adventure: the Ganges is so wide at times that you can't see the other side, it's like being in the ocean, and we travel from Bangladesh to India to the Gangotri Glacier, the source of the river where it melts. the ice, which retreats several meters each year due to global warming.
“We have been tracking the garbage we found using an open source application designed by the University of Georgia, and we are working with a drone pilot along the banks of the river to track how the plastic reaches the river from land. We also made some wooden drift cards to see how rubbish moves through the river system, which have messages in Bengali and Hindi asking people to tell us when they find them. "
The team also placed a tracking device inside a plastic bottle, similar to those used on sharks and turtles, and set it adrift in the Ganges to determine how far downstream it goes.
"The idea was that it could end up in the sea," Koldewey said. "The device pings a mobile or satellite signal so that we know where it is at all times and we will pick it up at the end of our expedition."
Ethically, the team debated whether or not to use plastic devices to track plastic pollution, he added, but concluded it was necessary to collect data. As a general rule, the plastics that the team are bringing to Bangladesh and India are taking out with them again, be it toiletries, medical packages or technology, Koldewey said.
Was the Ganges chosen as the first of several planned river expeditions for National Geographic's Planet or Plastic? initiative, which aims to reduce single-use plastic waste entering the world's seas.
"These expeditions are a great opportunity to mobilize a global community of experts to help address the problem," said Valerie Craig of the National Geographic Society.
“I am particularly delighted that this expedition elevates women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics around the world to help us understand how plastic moves through our waterways and, ultimately, to find ways around plastic waste entering the ocean. "
In 2002, Bangladesh was the first country in the world to ban single-use transport bags, but plastic accounts for 8% of the country's waste each year. In India, Narendra Modi has pledged close to $ 3bn (£ 2.47bn) for a Ganges cleanup, due to be completed next year. However, only a fraction of the budget has been spent, official figures show, and in many parts of the river, levels are more polluted than when the cleanup began in 2015.
However, both Jambeck and Koldewey hope that the data they collect will make a positive difference, as the National Geographic team is focusing on building solutions and filling gaps with local and national partners and creating long-term change.
“We are not trying to demonize plastic, it has a very important role in society, but when you look at the impact of its waste, when there is no infrastructure to treat it or the infrastructure is weak, it is causing enormous consequences, whether that is about people, animals, wildlife or the health of the river system, ”said Koldewey.
“Having worked on plastic pollution for many years, what is encouraging to me is seeing a real wave of movement in the last two or three years. It really seems that now there is energy and time for change, as there is ambition at the highest levels of government, and that allows many groups to make the change themselves.