End of the Ganges? Today, the Ganges River is shrinking at a remarkable rate, and there are stretches where it has disappeared altogether. The depth of the Ganges around the ancient city of Varanasi was once two hundred feet; it is now thirty-three feet.

End of the Ganges water?

The rare Gangetic dolphin is now confined to deep pools along the Ganges, since the river has become too shallow for swimming. This unique creature is born blind, an evolutionary change due to living in a muddy river where sight is unnecessary. It orients itself by swimming on its side and touching the ground with its fin while it searches for food. Now it is often forced to swim in circles when it cannot escape the shallow pools. Unable to forage for food, the Gangetic dolphins are starving. Even as the Ganges River is shrinking, devastating floods often strike the region.

On July 16–17, 2013, a catastrophic flood began in the Himalayas, killing around six thousand people and leaving seventyfive thousand stranded in the mountains. Called an “Indian tsunami” by CNN, the flood wiped out the area above Joshimath and all its pilgrims, most of whom were traveling to the Hindu temple of Kedarnath but some of whom were on their way to the Sikh temple of Hemkund and the Valley of Flowers. India Today reported, “Survivors say they witnessed tonnes of waterborne debris flattening almost anything that stood in the way. Screaming pilgrims, their voices drowned out, did not stand a chance in the face of the ferocious flood that unbelievably tossed around boulders, several metres across, like paper balls.”

The flood was caused by a dam collapse, though it was not Tehri Dam. In the Himalayas as in Patagonia, glaciers are melting so quickly that GLOFs are forming and then bursting. Unlike in Patagonia, there are no GLOF warning systems in the Himalayas. Scientists working at the lake Gandhi Sarovar actually heard the ice dam bursting but had no way of reporting it to the people below. Instead, they ran for their lives. Located four kilometers above Kedarnath, Gandhi Sarovar is so named because Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were dispersed there in 1948.

But in July 2013, Gandhi came crashing down the mountains in an unexpected fit of violence. Surprisingly, the thin-wristed Vishnu statute survived, as did Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna. As I watched in awe and horror back in the United States, the Alaknanda River devoured the hotel where I had once stayed, collapsing it into the river like a house of cards. It also destroyed another dam near Joshimath, the Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project.

But Tehri Dam survived. In fact, immediately after the flood, both the Uttarakhand chief minister and Tehri Hydropower authorities claimed that Tehri Dam had “saved” the cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar located below the dam. What they failed to mention, which activists quickly pointed out, was that these areas were hardly “saved.” Both Rishikesh and Haridwar were flooded a day later, when Tehri Dam was forced to release water to prevent collapse. Below the dam, hundreds died. In Delhi, ten thousand people had to be evacuated from the Yamuna River area and were then hit with an outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever.

A week after the floods, a group of twenty professors, lawyers, politicians, and activists including Vandana Shiva called upon the Ministry of Environment and Forests to halt hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and start an independent inquiry into the role of dams in creating the disaster. They wrote, “It is now beyond doubt that existing and under construction hydropower projects in Uttarakhand have played a significant role in increasing the proportions of disaster in Uttarakhand this June 2013.”

They cited the fact that several dam operators failed to open their gates in time, leading to overtopping of dams and flash flooding of downstream communities.

A month after the floods, Tehri Dam continued to be precariously at risk of collapse. Rather than saving downstream communities, the dam merely extended the period of flooding and mandatory evacuations below. Exactly one month after the flood, Tehri Dam authorities announced that the reservoir was again nearing its maximum water level of 825 meters, despite continued releases of large amounts of water. People in Haridwar and fourteen villages were forced to evacuate as panicked residents had to read in the press, “Incessant Rains in Uttarakhand Pose Threat to Tehri Dam.”

The irony of claiming the dam had “saved” Haridwar while at the same time announcing that it would flood Haridwar was not missed by the people. And 2013 was not a unique year, aside from the number dead. Since 2010, the reservoir has reached or exceeded the “danger” level every year, and people downstream brace for more floods.

The current Indian government appears to believe that large-scale water projects dams and canals are the solution to its water problems, even as Californians are paying to remove dams verging on failure. For instance, the San Clemente Dam, one of many silted-up California dams, is vulnerable to collapse, so the state is paying $84 million to have it taken down.

Yet India, China, and other countries keep building. In February 2012, India proceeded with the national Interlinking Rivers Project, which will tie together thirty major rivers through thousands of miles of canals, largely east to west. China has a similar river-interlinking project, its South-North Water Transfer Project.

Journalist Dinesh C. Sharma has described India’s plan: “The project starts with a map of India with rivers marked in blue, decides that all the rivers need to be linked, and then talks of modalities of joining all the blue lines with a red pen.” It treats rivers as pipelines, creating a “national water grid” for India. In the Himalayas, it will dam even more sources of the Ganges River.

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