The Ganges is a lifeline for the people of India, spiritually and economically. On its journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, it supports fishermen, farmers and an abundance of wildlife.

The river and its tributaries touch the lives of roughly 500 million people. But having flowed for millennia, today it is reaching its capacity for human and industrial waste, while simultaneously being drained for agriculture and municipal use.

Here are some of the challenges the river faces.

Image: © WWF / François Xavier PELLETIER

Large schools of freshwater dolphins, known as Ganges River dolphins, were once found along the river. Now they swim in small groups or alone, and have become endangered due to pollution, dams, irrigation projects and the dredging of new shipping channels.

Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

More than 1 billion litres of raw sewage flow into the river every day. In places, the water’s bacteria count reaches 3,000 times the limit declared safe for bathing by the World Health Organization.

Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Plastic and industrial waste, such as waste water from the leather tanneries that sit on the banks of the Ganges, are another cause of pollution.

Image: Reuters/Jitendra Prakash

But perhaps the most worrying problem facing the river is its increasing lack of water. Water for irrigation is being removed faster than the rainy season can replenish it.

Untreated waste water from leather tanneries flow into the river Ganges in Kanpur, India, May 3, 2018. Picture taken May 3, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RC14CAF62560
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The Ganges is being throttled by more than 300 dams and diversions, with many more blocking its tributaries, stopping the natural ebb and flow of the river.

Image: Reuters/Jitendra Prakash

Climate change is making the monsoon rains unpredictable, increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events like droughts, and leaving the fishermen of the Ganges with dwindling catches.