Sewage and Ma Ganga

The disposal of human waste is a crucial issue in India, as 85% of the pollution of Ma Ganga is caused by inadequately treated or untreated sewage. This has led to extremely high levels of fecal coliform in the water of the Ganges, as well as overly acidic water in many parts of the river. This issue is partially caused by the practice of open defecation, which is a consequence of a lack of properly functioning toilets in India. Current sewage treatment plants need to be updated, as well as new ones to be built, in order to properly handle the waste in the sewage system (mainly in cities along the river). Besides improving and expanding sewage plants, another potential solution for this issue is "alternative toilets", such as incinerator toilets. These toilets are beginning to grow in popularity in India, as a shorter-term solution along with the total overhaul of the sewage infrastructure. Both will likely be needed in order to accomplish a clean Ma Ganga.


Credit: FirstPost

Sewage and Ma Ganga: Issues and Challenges

The majority of human waste in India is not being disposed of or processed in ways that are conducive to human health or the health of local waterways. As the largest waterway in India, as well as the country's main water supply, Ma Ganga is most heavily affected by poor sewage disposal as well as open defecation in many rural areas. This even occurs in large cities. Fifty cities along the river produce 2.723 million liters a day of sewage, which accounts for 85% of the pollution of the Ganges. Even when human waste goes through the existing sewage systems, the sewage treatment plants along the river are relatively ineffective. This is because many are either not operating at full capacity or are not operating at all, due to shortages in local government funding and/or labor. Many operating plants are also essentially obsolete, as they were built for much smaller populations than they currently serve.


Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Sewage and Ma Ganga: Programs and Policies in Place

 New sewage plants are currently under construction, with future populations in mind, and some already constructed plants are being brought back on-line through interventions by the national government. Additionally, solutions are being applied for the sort of "front-end" of the problem: preventing open defecation, thereby closing the direct path of human waste to the river. To accomplish this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried out a project from 2014-2019, to build 110M toilets. However, the upkeep of these toilets is difficult, with similar problems to that of the upkeep of sewage treatment plants. Maintenance is left to local governments, which often do not have the funds or the knowledge to properly care for these toilets. As such, many of these toilets are unsanitary, and others lie unused. Finding labor to clean the toilets is also difficult, as dealing with human waste has traditionally been seen as low-caste work in India, and therefore "unclean" both literally and figuratively. Ideas to try and make the toilets easier and more sanitary to clean are being applied by humanitarian groups, like the Sunidhi toilet (pictured below).  

Sunidhi toilet.jpg

Credit: The WASH Institute of India

Unlike a conventional toilet, the Sunidhi toilet is not connected to any kind of sewage system. Instead, it incinerates any waste deposited in the toilet. Toilets like this are mainly targeted towards women, as they are rare sanitary and enclosed spaces for women. This toilet, which can be constructed in a single day, was conceived by the WASH Institute, with approval from the Indian Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. However, only 10 have been constructed as of 2019. Many more will be needed if Indian women are to be provided with comfortable and safe spaces for them. Currently the government project for a toilet in every household is in progress.

This is for the environment and the rivers, but it is also helpful for women. Defecation in the open is dangerous for women because they are more exposed to physical violence and/or sexual assault. Better maintained and private toilets are essential to improving the health and safety of women.

What can Individuals and Communities do?

  • If possible, donate to the WASH institute.

  • Advocate for stronger sewage filtration systems in their community. Information on local politicians to contact can be found at Grievances may also be lodged on this website.

  • Contact the WASH institute (based in New Delhi) online or by phone at or +91-11-4905 8088 about the potential installation of an alternative toilet in their area. Installation is completed at no cost to the community, although there is generally a very small user-cost, in order to support maintenance costs.

  • Volunteer to clean and maintain government-built toilets, or create a rotation of volunteers in the community. 

  • Educate your community on the dangers of open defecation, potentially with an infographic like the following below:

Open Defecation Infographic.jpg

Credit: Dreamstime


- Chatterjee, Abishek. “The Sunidhi Toilet - Wash Institute.” WASH Institute,

- Regan, Helen, and Manveena Suri. “Half of India Couldn't Access a Toilet 5 Years Ago. Modi Built 110m Latrines -- but Will People Use Them?” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Oct. 2019,

- Siddiqui, Danish. “The Race to Save the River Ganges.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 18 Jan. 2019,

- Soni, Preeti. “Ganga Is Much Cleaner Now but It Will Take More than a Lockdown for People to Be Able to Drink from India's Holiest River.” Business Insider, 26 Apr. 2020,'s%20holiest%20river-,Ganga%20is%20much%20cleaner%20now%20but%20it%20will%20take%20more,drink%20from%20India's%20holiest%20river&text=According%20to%20the%20Central%20Pollution,the%20quality%20of%20Ganga%20water.

- “University Grants Commission Distance Education Bureau ... - Firstpost.” Firstpost, 2018,

This webpage written by: Samuel Weinstein Zimbel