Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Kristine Ellsworth makes this connection here…

The journal article entitled, “Water Samples taken from the Upper Ganges River Shed Light on the Spread of Potential ‘Superbugs’” on February 17th, 2014.

The WRE issue at hand is related to hydrology, specifically the spreading of antibiotic resistant bacteria through contaminated surface water in the Ganges River. Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage in which Hindus gather to bathe in the sacred Ganges River. It is held every third year at one of four cities in India: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. Enormous tent cities are constructed as soon as the water retreats from the floodplain welcoming in hundreds of thousands of people at a time. Just this past February, millions of people traveled to Allahabad to cleanse their souls in the Ganges River. They are researching and finding that these mass gatherings are dramatically increasing the spreading of antibiotic resistant bacteria through the surface water of the Ganges with this case specifically studying the gene blaNDM-1 which causes extreme multi-resistance in bacteria. The level of resistance genes was found to be 60 times greater during the time of the pilgrimage than any other time of the year with blaNDM-1 20 times higher per capita during the pilgrimage season. This issue sources from the untreated sewage that enters the Ganges during the religious gathering. The waste treatment facilities are overloaded with the new temporary visitors causing untreated sewage to directly dump into the river where they will later on bathe. People also openly defecate in the cities and into the river, only adding to the problem. The bacteria carrying these genes are carried in peoples guts meaning as their untreated waste enters the water supply/river, resistance potential can pass to the next individual and so on. I believe the WRE facts in this news article are quite accurate because, while surface water is one of the most accessible and available sources of water, it is also the most readily polluted as it is open to all kinds of contamination as in this instance, human waste. Microbial concentrations are often extremely high, as well as turbidity.  (Mihelcic, 2009). Tests carried out by Uttar Pradesh’s State Pollution Control Board found BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) levels to be double the maximum acceptable level after the first day of the Mela (Nelson, 2013).While the news article was focused on the anitbiotic resistance genes, I would have liked for the news article to have included other water quality characteristics of the Ganges River to fully prove their point of the increase of disease and pollution during the pilgrimage time frame.

In the broader context, this relates to environmental, societal as well as cultural problems because this is impacting the health of those who live by the Ganges, those using the Ganges as a source of water , the communities in which the pilgrims return to and the Ganges River ecosystem health. This site serves of great religious importance to those visiting it and must be dealt with properly. It is important to protect the people living both locally and visiting, while also making sure nothing interferes with their religious practices. Human mass migrations with almost certainty increase the risk of spreading antibiotic resistant genes across a community and act as hot spots to incubate the genes. (Ahammad ,2013). The solution in stopping the spread of this issue is stopping the spread of these genes locally through identifying the source. As the article stated perfectly, “If we can stem the spread of such antibiotic resistant genes locally—possibly through improved sanitation and waste treatment—we have a better chance of limiting their spread on larger scales, creating global solutions by solving local problems.”

In conclusion, this was an important news story because protecting sites of both environmental and religious importance can act as a catalyst for change. While implanting large waste facilities may be infeasible, Improving sanitation and waste treatment through appropriate technologies can not only decrease the spread of the antibiotic resistance genes, but also improve the lives of those surrounding and using the river.

Pilgrims bath in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela.

Pilgrims bath in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela.

Site on Ganges River displaying the tent city that has emerged during the Kumbh Mela

Site on Ganges River displaying the tent city that has emerged during the Kumbh Mela


Ahammad, Z. S., T. R. Sreekrishnan, C. L. Hands, C. W. Knapp, and D. W. Graham. “Increased Waterborne BlaNDM-1 Resistance Gene Abundances Associated with Seasonal Human Pilgramages to the Upper Ganges River.” Environmental Science & Technology, 12 Feb. 2013. Web.

Mihelcic, James R. Field Guide to Environmental Engineering for Development Workers: Water, Sanitation, and Indoor Air. Reston: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2009. Print.

Nelson, Dean. “Ganges Hit by Alarming Pollution Levels during Kumbh Mela.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 24 Feb. 2013. Web.