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Elemental is a documentary, currently in post-production, that follows three iconoclasts who are obsessed with nature and driven by a deep desire to change the status quo. One of them is Rajendra Singh, an Indian government official gone rogue, who has mounted a national crusade to save the Ganges River. During a 33-day shoot, we traveled down the river with Singh—from the glacial source in the Himalayas to where it meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal. Watch the trailer for Elemental here.
Rajendra Singh talks to the media before departing on a 40-day journey down the Ganges River. Known as the water Gandhi of India for revitalizing seven rivers in arid Rajasthan, he is now working to help save the Ganges from pollution, overuse, and the impacts of climate change. His journey from the source of the river in the Gaumukh Glacier to where it meets the sea on the Bay of Bengal was part of an effort to raise national awareness of the issues facing the Ganges and build an army of water warriors to help stop its destruction.
The source of the Ganges, the Gaumukh Glacier is located high in the Himalayas near the Chinese border. With an estimated volume of more than 27 cubic kilometers (more than 7 million gallons), the glacier is one the largest in the Himalayas. Over the last 25 years, the glacier has receded more than 3,200 feet, with the pace expected to quicken in the coming decades. The impact on the Ganges could be devastating, with experts predicting that it could become a seasonal monsoon river within this century, directly affecting the 500 million people who depend on the river.
The small town of Gangotri is situated roughly 12 miles downstream of the Gaumukh Glacier and is considered one of the most holy places along the Ganges. Pilgrims make their way here to pay homage to the Goddess Ganga and bathe in the frigid glacial waters. Until recently Gangotri was littered with trash left behind by visiting pilgrims, who would discard their waste along the banks of the river. A new garbage and recycling program has set up bins for compost, recycling, and landfill waste throughout the town—a rare sight in India.
A waterfall cascades south of the town of Gangotri in the foothills of the Himalayas. Although the water looks clean and clear, it is already considered unsafe to drink with municipal sewage waste polluting the river from towns upstream. Until the town implements ways of treating and disposing of sewage waste, the majority will end up in the Ganges—the quickest and easiest form of disposal.
A woman offers prayers on the bathing ghats in the city of Haridwar. As one of the holiest cities along the river, Haridwar has millions of Hindu pilgrims pass through each year. Hindus believe the Ganges is a mother and goddess who washes away your sins when you bath in her waters. One major challenge in addressing pollution stems from the fact that many believe the Ganges cleans and purifies all, including the sewage and garbage dumped in the river.
Kids jump from a bridge over the Ganges near the town of Narora southeast of New Delhi. Full from the recent monsoon rains, the river will be fast-flowing for only a couple of months before returning to its normal and significantly reduced flow. With so much of the annual flow of the river diverted to supply farmers and major cities upstream, the Ganges could soon become unable to support the people who depend on it further south.
Rajendra Singh looks on as untreated raw sewage and industrial wastewater empties directly into the Ganges in Kanpur, one of the largest and most polluting cities along the river. Ranked among the world's most polluted cities—for both air and water—Kanpur is a center of the Indian leather tanning industry. The majority of the tanneries use chemicals with high concentrations of heavy metals such as chromium and lead, which end up in the river and cause illnesses in farming communities downstream. As a result of Singh’s visit to Kanpur, more than 100 polluting factories in violation of environmental standards were shut down.
A boy swims in a flooded forest in rural Bihar, one of the many states through which the Ganges flows. Millions of farmers depend on the annual monsoon rains that flood the banks, bringing both irrigation and mineral-rich silt to their fields. With climate change, the monsoon rains have already become unreliable, threatening food production across India.
The cremation ghat (steps) in Varanasi–the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. For centuries, bodies have been cremated on these ghats, with the remains thrown into the river. Although more modern crematoriums have since been built, many people still prefer the traditional cremations beside the river, often making journeys from across India to die in Varanasi.
A young boy prepares to take his fishing boat out near Patna in the state of Bihar. Fishing provides economic livelihoods and food all along the southeastern stretch of the Ganges. These livelihoods and food sources will increasingly be threatened if the river's health does not improve. One of Rajendra Singh’s aims is to mobilize those who live and work along the Ganges to become stewards of the river, helping to start a grassroots movement to save the Ganges.
Rajendra takes a group of government officials and environmentalists on a boat tour along the Ganges in Allahabad. Getting local officials to take interest in the issues facing the Ganges is one of the major challenges to implementing solutions to pollution in cities like Allahabad. Rajendra uses his national status as “India’s water man” to persuade government officials to get more involved in addressing the river's problems at the local and national levels.
A fisherman hauls his catch just north of Kolkota, the largest city on the Ganges. Traditional scenes like this, which would have looked much the same 500 years ago, could be threatened if the river stops providing a viable source of income and food for those who depend on it.
Families come to bathe in the Ganges at dusk near the Howrah Bridge in Kolkota. Despite India’s rapid push to modernize, traditions like bathing in the Ganges still hold great value. As the most sacred river in India, it holds a central place in the lives of more than 800 million Hindus. But if India doesn’t change its relationship to its most famous river, the Ganges as we know it may not exist in 50 years.