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Ganges Expedition 2009

The River

The Ganges is one of the mighty rivers of the Indian subcontinent, associated in myth and reality with the land and the people of India and neighbouring countries like Bangladesh.

The Gangotri Glacier, a vast expanse of ice five miles by fifteen, at the foothills of the Himalaya (14000 ft) in North Uttar Pradesh, is the source of Bhagirathi, which joins with Alaknanda to form Ganges at the craggy canyon-carved town of Devprayag.
From Devprayag to the Bay of Bengal and the vast Sunderbans delta, the Ganges flows some 2.100 kilometres, passing (and giving life to) some of the most populous cities of India, including Kanpur (2 million), Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, and Calcutta (14 million). Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh is on a tributary of the Brahmaputra, just before it joins the Ganges to form Padma. A large number of tributaries join and flow from the Ganges to drain the Northern part of India and Bangladesh.

The delta of the Ganges, or rather that of the Hooghly and the Padma, is a vast ragged swamp forest (42,000 km²) called the Sunderbans, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, who still kills about 30 villagers each year. The silt-carrying waters of the Ganges stain the Bay of Bengal for more than 500 kilometres into the ocean. The Ganges is India’s holy river – for every hindu a pilgrimage to and along the river is the most important thing in life. Every day thousands of pilgrims take a bath in the Ganges and drink from its waters. There river is deeply interwoven with the regions culture and religion, it represents its past, present and future.

The Project

Over 2.500 kilometres in inflatable boats. The Ganges will be the scene of a spectacular expedition in 2009.
An international team, will travel from the river’s source to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal. The trip will be a unique awareness and aid project for India and Bangladesh.

Andy Leemann, a Swiss boating expert and expedition leader who travelled the Amazon, Orinoco, Mekong and Zambezi on previous expeditions, will organize this journey on India’s most vital river together with his partners, the German journalist Helge Bendl, the Indian producer and camera man Apal Singh and South African Andrew Weinberg,who did the logistics of the Zambezi river of life expedition.
Their aim is to improve awareness, to showcase the potential of the region for tourism and to emphasize the need to preserve the unique biodiversity along the riverbanks. The expedition wants to bring a deeper knowledge and understanding of the whole region, its culture, natural beauty and diversity to a broader public. A steady influx of tourists would secure income and thus help to achieve a sustainable development – environmental aspects and the protection of nature would be of utmost importance in this context.

Media coverage before, during and after the expedition can be guaranteed. Reports, photos and films of this multimedia voyage will be broadcasted daily and will be followed by a huge audience on the internet. The team has a lot of journalistic experience, e. g. expedition partner Apal Singh, in charge of logistics and film, did a documentary for BBC World on the Zambezi Expedition (2008) that was broadcasted in 150 countries. Team member Helge Bendl is a prize winning journalist who was honoured with the “Axel Springer Prize” and the “CNN Award” for his mulitmedia online reports on the Mekong Expedition (2005).

Route Planning

The expedition will take about 30 days and is scheduled to begin in September 2009. This is the end of the rainy season and the time of the year when the river carries a lot of water, helping us to master the tricky passages with rapids and sand bars. The details of our route planning will depend very much on the tasks awaiting us along the way. Here is a rough description of the three major stretches of the Ganges.
The river Ganges takes its source in a remote mountain mass, at the secret shrine of Gangotri, and rushes down to the plains in a torrential fury. This first bit is not navigable – we will have to do some trekking along the riverbanks until we will be able to water our rafts.

We will then use three white water rafts for a stretch of about 200 kilometres leading us through the river’s narrow Himalayan valley until we reach the pilgrimage town of Haridwar. Here we can change from the rafts to our well tested inflatable boats with outboard engines. The Ganges, whose course has been roughly southwestern up to this point, now begins to flow southeast through the plains of northern India.

The river follows a curving course for about 800 kilometres passing through the city of Kanpur before being joined from the southwest by the river Yamuna at Allahabad. This point is known as the “Sangam at Allahabad”. Sangam is a sacred place in hinduism. According to ancient hindu texts, at one time a third river, the Sarasvati, met the other two rivers at this point.

After entering Bangladesh, the main branch of the Ganges is known as the Padma River until it is joined by the Jamuna River, the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra fanning out into the 350 kilometres wide Ganges Delta that finally empties into the Bay of Bengal.

On the tracks of “Edmund Hillary”

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary (20 July 1919 – 11 January 2008) was a New Zealand mountaineer and explorer. On 29 May 1953 at the age of 33, he and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

“From the Ocean to the Sky” Ganges Expedition
Hillary inspired the explorers, merchants and adventurers who came after him – and he also inspired us. We will have to cope with some.
After his triumphant ascent of Everest, Hillary busied himself with lesser tasks. Then, in 1973, he began getting the glimmer of a dynamic adventure for his middle years: a 2100km trip by jet-propelled boat up the holy Ganges from its mouth in the Bay of Bengal to its mountainous source. He and his team would leave the river when it became impassable and climb to the summit of the most likely mountain. Arrangements took about four years: gathering backers and equipment, getting three jet-boats refined for the rigors of the journey, and tapping the right men as team members – there were finally 19 men involved, only a handful of whom were to make the final ascent. They were known as the “Ocean to Sky” team and their adventure captured the imagination of all India: Adventures occur daily, with treacherous white water rapids, Royal Bengal tigers that swim alongside, a yogi whose powers withstand the pull of a jet-boat he’s roped to. And, during the great ascent, Hillary comes down with pulmonary edema though his team goes on to final success. Exciting and involving: West meets East on the river of the gods.

Ganges: A dying River?

The cultural and economic significance of the Ganges is enormous. The river is a centre of social and religious tradition and is particularly sacred in Hinduism. The Ganges river basin runs from the central Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, and covers parts of Nepal, India, China and Bangladesh. The Ganges flows through northeastern India to the Bangladesh border, east- southeast 212 Km to its confluence with Brahmaputra, and continues as the Padma River for another 100 Km to its confluence with the Meghna River at Chandpur.

The basin occupies 30% of the land area of India and is heavily populated, increasing in population density downstream to Bangladesh, the most densely populated country in the world. Approximately 1 in 12 people in the world (8%) live in its catchment area.

The Ganges river basin contains high biodiversity. There are over 140 fish species, the richest freshwater fish fauna in India, 90 amphibian species, and 5 areas supporting birds found nowhere else in the world.
The basin is home to 5 species of freshwater cetaceans including the endangered Ganges River Dolphin which faces an annual mortality rate of 10% and the rare freshwater shark, Glyphis gangeticus.

The unique Sundarbans delta mangroves are found where the Brahmaputra River and Meghna River converge in the Bengal basin and support over 289 terrestrial, 219 aquatic, 315 bird, 176 fish and 31 crustacean species. There are also 35 reptile and 42 mammal species, including the world’s last population of the mangrove-inhabiting tigers, Panthera tigris. Together the Brahmaputra and Ganges watersheds span 10 biomes and contain the widest diversity of all large river systems.


Water withdrawal poses a serious threat to the Ganges. In India, barrages control all of the tributaries to the Ganges and divert roughly 60% of river flow to large-scale irrigation.

India controls the flow of the Ganges into Bangladesh with over 30 upstream water diversions. The largest, the Farraka Barrage, 18 Km from the border of Bangladesh, reduced the average monthly discharge of the Ganges from 2,213 m3/s to a low of 316m3/s.
The Tehri Dam (under construction since 1978), became operational in 2005 and is the 5th largest dam in the world. Two hundred miles northeast of Delhi, its reservoir completely submerged 40 villages and the old Tehri town, causing the resettlement of 100,000 people. Tehri Dam provides 270 million gallons of drinking water per day, irrigates thousands of acres of farmland and generates 2,000 megawatts of electricity mainly to the Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

This is part of the ‘garland of rivers’ project in which the Indian government plans to link 37 major rivers (including all the major rivers flowing from the Himalayas). The rivers would be linked through a series of dams and canals spanning the subcontinent to provide stable drinking water supplies to urban and rural populations and harness some 34,000 MW of hydroelectricity.

In this US$125 billion ‘interlinking of rivers’ scheme, India proposes to divert vast quantities of water from the Ganges (and Brahmaputra) to support water and agriculture needs of the drought-prone states in the south and east. This would further aggravate water poverty in Bangladesh.
In addition, governments along the Ganges are heavily subsidizing electricity for tube well pumps, plan to expand surface water irrigation, and ban distribution of all surface water diversion Over-extraction for agriculture in the Ganges has caused the reduction in surface water resources. This has increased dependence on ground water, the loss of water-based livelihoods, and the destruction of habitat for 109 fish species, and other aquatic and amphibian fauna.

Lowering water levels have indirectly led to deficiencies in soil organic content, andreduced agricultural productivity. Lastly, over-extraction of ground water has seriously affected water quality. Inadequate recharging of groundwater impairs the natural cleansing of arsenic which becomes water soluble when exposed to air, and threatens the health of 75 million people who are likely to use water contaminated with up to 2Mg/L of arsenic.

Climate change will exacerbate the problems caused bywater extraction. The Himalayan glaciers are estimated to supply 30-40% of the water in the Ganges, which is particularly critical in the dry season prior to the monsoon rains.
The projected annual renewablewater supply for 2025 indicates water scarcity. Although the Ganges catchment drains virtually all of the Nepal Himalayas and water supply per person in the basin ranges from adequate to ample, its dry season outflow (from December to February) to the sea is non-existent. Overall, excessive water diversions threaten to eliminate natural flows and severely damage people’s livelihoods in the Ganges.


To reduce the threat of excessive water extraction, countries can irrigate crops more efficiently, use local knowledge, end perverse subsidies, cap water extraction levels, further community education and awareness, and support integrated river basin management.
WWF has instigated a new initiative on freshwater to foster sustainable utilization and conservation of water for future generations. It is currently building a network of partnerships between government agencies, NGOs and freshwater professionals to support monitoring, policy work and restoration projects at different scales.

WWF aims to achieve biodiversity conservation within the broader context of sustainable development and poverty reduction.
WWF works on the Indian side of the Sundarbans and helps people to cope with the impacts of sea level rise on livelihoods. WWF is determining how protected areas will be affected by climate change in the region, especially sea level rise. The goal is to determine which tiger populations and parts of protected areas are most at risk and which are more stable.