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Global superbug threat as Ganges pollution reaches critical levels

Released on October 20, 2017

River of Life, River of Death Cover Image

20.10.2017, Oxford, UK: Pollution in some parts of the Ganges river system on which a tenth of the world’s population depends has reached critical levels, with scientists increasingly concerned about the global spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” via the waterways of south Asia.

River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future, a new book on the Ganges published by Oxford University Press this week, highlights the dangers to the environment and to human health from the toxins, bacteria, and particularly the superbugs that are all dumped in India’s holy river in the form of industrial effluent and sewage.

“Indians are killing the Ganges, and the Ganges in turn is killing Indians,” says the author, Victor Mallet.

Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister and a devout Hindu, has personally championed a $3 billion dollar campaign to save the Ganges since taking office in 2014, although environmentalists and health experts say they are so far disappointed by the lack of progress in improving sanitation and tackling the pollution that affects the river and some of its tributaries.

Hundreds of millions of Indians and Bangladeshis are directly affected, but the consequences of India’s river pollution and poor sanitation reach beyond Asia to Europe and the rest of the world.

India - where the superbug-creating bacterial gene known as NDM-1 (for New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase) first emerged only 10 years ago before spreading across the world - is an important epicentre for the global crisis of antibiotic resistance that has triggered alarm bells at the World Health Organisation and in national capitals.

An estimated 1,900 people a day - nearly 700,000 a year - around the globe die from infections that cannot be treated by antibiotics, and a study commissioned by the UK government warned that the number could rise to 10 million deaths a year, more than cancer today, without the development of new drugs.

Speaking to the Financial Times, England’s Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies says resistance to antibiotics is one of the main threats to the country along with terrorism and pandemic influenza, while Margaret Chan, the former head of the World Health Organization, has called it a “slow-motion tsunami”.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, an expert on the topic who is interviewed in River of Life, says India has created a “perfect storm” to produce dangerous strains of bacteria because of its large pharmaceutical industry, high levels of infectious diseases, and misuse of antibiotics.

Health officials worldwide are also worried by extensive use of antibiotics in animal feed to improve growth rates of chickens, cattle and pigs, which makes them ideal incubators for drug resistance.

Alarming new research published in the past two months by Indian scientists has exposed the additional dangers posed by India’s inadequate sewage treatment.* Most of Delhi’s waste is dumped untreated into the Yamuna, a major tributary of the Ganges, while crude treatment of sewage actually provides an environment for bacteria to proliferate, with some resistant strains multiplying tenfold in the treatment plants.

“Overuse and misuse of antibiotics, poor sanitation, and inability of the present treatment plants to treat the bacterial and genetic contaminants are aggravating the problem of AR [antibiotic resistance] in New Delhi,” researchers Manisha Lamba and Shaikh Ziauddin Ahammad concluded.

The crisis, however, is not insoluble. India is seeking to emulate the clean-up that restored the once-filthy Thames in London to life from the 1960s, as well as the successful campaigns to save the Rhine in continental Europe and the Chicago River in the US.

A fast-growing population, climate change, pollution, and superbugs all remain a grave threat to the Ganges itself and to human health.  But Mallet concludes that the river’s spiritual importance and natural heritage, along with India’s proven ability  to organise vast religious festivals along its banks for millions of pilgrims, all mean that India has a chance to save its sacred river for posterity.

“If Ganga [the Ganges] dies, India dies. If Ganga thrives, India thrives,” says Swami Chidanand Saraswati, a holy man who runs an ashram on the banks of the upper Ganges in Rishikesh. “The lives of 500 million people is not a small thing.”

-- ENDS --

Notes for editors

Victor Mallet is available for interview. Review copies also available. Contact Nicola Burton, Publicity Manager |  |  @nicola_burton
River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future by Victor Mallet is published by Oxford University Press on 19.10.17 (ISBN: 9780198786177, RRP: £20)
The latest work from Financial Times Asia News Editor, Victor Mallet, exposes an environmental crisis of international significance, with revelations about extreme levels of pollution, antibiotic resistance, droughts, and floods. Mallet takes a fascinating trip down the most historic of rivers to investigate whether it has a future.
Victor Mallet is a journalist and author who has reported for three decades from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, first for Reuters and then for the Financial Times. From 2012 to 2016 he was based in New Delhi as the FT South Asia Bureau Chief, and is currently in Hong Kong as the FT Asia News Editor. His highly praised book on the south-east Asian industrial revolution and the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, The Trouble with Tigers (HarperCollins), was first published in 1999. He twice won the Society of Publishers in Asia award for opinion writing. In India, he was twice awarded the Ramnath Goenka foreign correspondent's award for excellence in journalism – in 2012 for a feature about the rise of Narendra Modi, and in 2015 for a magazine cover story on the Ganges.

Social: @OUPHistory  |  @OUPAcademic  |  @VJMallet

* Research: Lamba, M. and Ahammad SZ., 2017, ‘Sewage treatment effluents in Delhi: A key contributor of ß-lactam resistant bacteria and genes to the environment.’, Chemosphere 188, pp.249-256.

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