Idols are polluting India's rivers and lakes

A statue of the god Ganesh is immersed in New Delhi, September 2013. Image: Getty.

During the annual five day Durga Puja festival, Hindus spend five days paying worship to statues of the goddess Durga and her children. Then, as the festival ends, the statues are immersed in the nearest body of water. 

In religious terms, this ritual represents Durga's return to her husband, Shiva, at their home in the Himalayas, and celebrates her defeat of the evil god. In terms of urban governance, though, the hundreds of thousands of statues dumped every year represents a huge source of pollution throughout the nation's waterways and lakes. 

The problem stems from the materials used in the idols' construction. In most cases, this is still plaster of Paris, metal, and various chemical-based paints; all of which disintegrate in the water and pollute it.

Hindu communities in other countries like Burma and Bangladesh also immerse statues during festivals, but India's majority Hindu population, and the popularity of the Durga Puja fesitval in states like Assam and Odisha, means the build-up of statues and the pollutants they create is particularly bad there. 

Various studies have been conducted in India recent years to figure out the extent of the problem. Scientists in Hyderabad discovered highl levels of zinc, calcium and strontium in water samples from a lake containing hundreds of Ganesh and Durga statues. A study of a lake in Bhopal, India found that idol immersion is a "major source of contamination and sedimentation to the lake water". This isn't good for nearby plants and animals, or anyone who uses the lake or river as a source of drinking water. 

A Durga statue floats on the river in Siliguri, West Bengal. Image: Getty.

Contamination researchers and local and central governments are trying to encourage worshippers to use statues made of a softer clay, which would dissolve quickly and sink to the river or lake floor, and natural food colourings rather than chemical-based paint. Local authorities are also increasingly arranging large clean-up operations in the wake of festivals. 

Another solution is to create special, synthetically lined pools for idol immersion. In Hyderabad, for example, the chief minister is pushing for a dedicated statue-immersion pool to be constructed near the highly polluted Hussainsagar Lake. 

Either way, idol pollution still pales in comparison to the other types of refuse pouring into the country's lakes and rivers: 80 per cent of the nation's sewage, plus agricultural runoff and waste from unregulated small industry. We can't blame the gods for everything. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.