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Holy man, secular plan: clean up the River Ganges

03 08 08 - 03:43 Holy man, secular plan: clean up the River Ganges

By Mian Ridge

Varanasi, India - Most mornings, as the sun steals over the Ganges, Veer Bhadra Mishra takes a dip in India's holiest river. As high priest of a Hindu temple, it is his solemn duty. But as a scientist, the ritual is profoundly discomforting.

The Ganges, revered as a symbol of spiritual purity for more than 2,000 years, is today a filthy soup. This is especially true in the ancient pilgrimage site of Varanasi, where 32 old pipes on the riverbank disgorge raw sewage into the flow.

"I have a rationally trained mind," says the retired professor of hydraulics, who says he has contracted potentially fatal diseases from Ganges water. "But I also have a passionately committed heart." Mr. Mishra has used both in a 20-year river cleanup campaign now coming to fruition. With his spiritual clout in a country that's more than 80 percent Hindu and his scientific expertise, Mishra has won government approval for a pilot sewage-treatment program.

Religious imagery is never far from the lyrical speech of Mishra, who couches his environmental language in terms of saving the "Ganga Ma," or the Mother Ganges. Even more than the compassion he shows for the well-being of Hindus, he seems most concerned about the health of Hinduism - how a dirty river might damage the faith.

Mishra inherited the role of high priest of the 400-year-old Sankat Mochan temple when he was 14 years old, following a centuries-old tradition of passing the job from father to eldest son.

But he has also been driven by scientific curiosity, becoming the first family high priest to wear Western-style trousers and to attend university. Later, he became a professor at Varanasi's renowned Benares Hindu University.

In 1982, he set up the Sankat Mochan Foundation - named after his temple - which has led the city's clean-river campaign with an unusual mixture of science and spirituality.

A meeting with the prime minister

More than a decade ago, with scientists from the University of California in Berkeley, Mishra developed what many environmental experts attest is a cheap, sustainable system for diverting the city's sewage away from the river, and cleaning it.

The scheme was unanimously accepted by the city council nearly a decade ago, but the state and central governments rejected it. Gentle-mannered Mishra continued his tenacious lobbying, and last year secured a meeting with prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Last month, he heard what he describes as "the best news in 20 years."

On June 30, the central government wrote to him, telling him it would support a pilot run of his scheme in Varanasi and suggesting it would hold back support for a much costlier, ineffective state government-led scheme.

"If the result is convincing, it will be difficult for the government to refuse to roll it out," he says, with a broad smile. He says he is confident the system will not disappoint, but only hopes that the government will reverse years of "disastrous" policy on the Ganges.

The Ganges flows over 1,500 miles, from the Himalayas across the densely populated plains of India, into Bangladesh, before gushing into the Bay of Bengal.

It would be difficult to exaggerate how sacred the river is to Hindus, who see it as an incarnation of the god Ganga.

"Man becomes pure by the touch of the water, or by consuming it, or by expressing its name," says Lord Vishnu in the Ramayana, a poem written in the fourth century BC.

But while India's Hindus have maintained their reverence for the river, modernization - in the form of speedy population growth, urbanization, and industrialization - has sullied it. There are more than 100 cities, numerous towns, and countless villages scattered along its banks. Some 500 million people are dependent upon the Ganges for water. As it has been siphoned off for irrigation, its water levels have fallen.

Climate change is also taking a disastrous toll. The Himalayan Gangotri glacier, the source of most of the Ganges' water during India's long, hot summers, is shrinking by 40 yards a year, say scientists. By 2030, they warn, it could disappear altogether - making the Ganges dependent upon erratic monsoon rains.

While environmentalists urge India, a top greenhouse-gas producer, to take action, Mishra says that an opportunity is being lost to tackle the much simpler problem of domestic sewage pollution.

Few of the fast-growing cities and towns along the Ganges' banks - indeed, few in India, period - have sewage treatment plants. But the problem is especially crucial in Varanasi, where millions of Hindus make annual pilgrimages to pray and ritually bathe on the broad stone steps that lead down to the river from the riverbank temples.

The World Health Organisation, which labels dirty water as the leading cause of child deaths in India, says the coliform bacteria count is some 3,000 times higher than it considers safe.

That hasn't stopped the pilgrims at its banks, however, who may be unaware of such concerns.

Small boys water bomb into the river beside pious elderly men dressed in loin cloths who pour water over their heads. Sari-clad women murmur prayers as they scatter fragrant rose and jasmine petals, seemingly oblivious to the small islands of reeking rubbish that float by.

India's government, however, has been aware of the problem for some time. Twenty years ago, it launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), a multimillion-dollar scheme intended to clean up the river by means of wastewater treatment plants.

Replacement for government plan?

A near-consensus among experts exists that GAP has been an expensive disaster. The plants handle only a small amount of the sewage generated along the river. Because they rely on electrical pumps during power cuts - frequent in India - even the small amount of sewage they're meant to handle often flows into the river. And, experts say, when the floodwaters rise, sewage enters the slump well of the pumps, stopping operations for months of the year.

Most seriously, the GAP system is designed to remove solid waste but not microorganisms. Mishra's scheme is different. His adaptation of an "advanced integrated wastewater pond system" (AIWPS) developed by Prof. William Oswald at Berkeley and in operation in parts of California, is, experts say, suitable for a tropical climate like India's.

Instead of depending on scarce supplies of electricity, the system would use gravity to carry sewage to four big pools, built on wasteland several miles outside the city, where it would be broken down by bacteria, algae, and sunlight.

An independent assessment found the plan was cheaper and more effective than the existing scheme. He hopes that his pilot project may one day become a model for other Indian towns and cities. But his inspiration remains the Ganges.

"All our rivers have stories," he says, as a wooden boat of pilgrims floats by his window, trailing flickering floating candles in the gathering dusk. "All our rivers are important. But there is nothing anywhere like the Ganga." Used tags: , , , ,

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New rays of hope for solar power's future

Monday 25 August 2008 at 02:58 am New rays of hope for solar power's future

By Mark Clayton

Boulder City, Nev. - From five miles away, the Nevada Solar One power plant seems a mirage, a silver lake amid waves of 110 degree F. desert heat. Driving nearer, the rippling image morphs into a sea of mirrors angled to the sun.

Nevada Solar One Video

As the first commercial "concentrating solar power" or CSP plant built in 17 years, Nevada Solar One marks the reemergence and updating of a decades-old technology that could play a large new role in US power production, many observers say.

“Concentrating solar is pretty hot right now," says Mark Mehos, program manager for CSP at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Co. "Costs look pretty good compared to natural gas [power]. Public policy, climate concern, and new technology are driving it, too." more

Road tour educates people about hydrogen vehicle technology

Monday 18 August 2008 at 5:15 pm Road tour educates people about hydrogen vehicle technology

By Jackie Best

Washington - Hydrogen powered cars have finally moved from the drawing board to the road, and as tourists on a double-decker snapped photos, I got the chance to test drive two of them Thursday.

When I floored it on a nearly empty street at L'Enfant Plaza, the Nissan X-Trail sport utility vehicle, switched power sources - from the battery to the hydrogen fuel cell. The Nissan and the other car I drove, a BMW Hydrogen Series 7, are the future of automobiles, according to government officials and car manufacturers.

The departments of Energy and Transportation, along with nine auto manufacturers, sponsored at the Hydrogen Road Tour Event to show hydrogen vehicles to the public.

"The idea is to get people a little more comfortable with the technology," said Thomas Barrett, deputy transportation secretary.

Hydrogen vehicles run on hydrogen and oxygen and have zero emissions - the only byproduct is water vapor.

The Nissan X-Trail has a fuel cell that converts hydrogen into electricity and a lithium battery pack to help with acceleration and performance. It also turns off automatically when the car is idling at a stoplight.

The car was silent. I turned the key and was about to turn it again because the car didn't make the usual start-up clamor when Brian Johnston, senior project engineer for Nissan who was riding with me, pointed out it was already on. Accelerating and stopping were much smoother than any gasoline powered car.

The BMW Hydrogen Series 7 runs on hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, just like a gasoline car. It can also run on gasoline, so drivers who have trouble finding a hydrogen fueling station can switch to gasoline at any time.

This car was also silent, but instead of using a key to turn it on, it has an on/off button. It drove exactly like a gasoline car.

Dave Buchko, product communications manager for BMW, said the company chose a combustion engine rather than a fuel cell so people would feel like they were driving a regular car.

He said hydrogen is not only an important energy source because it produces zero emissions, but also because it can be produced domestically

The tour began Monday and goes to Aug. 23. It will visit 31 cities in 13 states, giving people a chance to see the cars, talk to experts and even drive them. The vehicles will travel a combined 24,000 miles on the trip.

Hydrogen is quickly emerging as a renewable alternative energy to foreign oil, Barrett said.

Hydrogen vehicles are already being driven by some people in demonstration programs, but by 2015 the vehicles are expected to be ready for practical use. By 2030, half of cars are expected to run on hydrogen, and by 2050, the majority of cars are expected to run on hydrogen, said Jeff Serfass, president of the National Hydrogen Association.

"There's no doubt about it - energy and the importation of oil are threatening our nation," Serfass said. "We can really reach oil independence by the middle of the century. We are much closer today than in 2004."

In 2004, President Bush created the hydrogen fuel cell initiative, which provided $1.2 billion over five years for research and development of hydrogen technology to help reduce dependence on foreign oil.

"We need national leadership, and we have had it from Bush," Serfass said.

His daughter, Julie Serfass, 25, test drove the Daimler Mercedes-Benz F-cell car and said the car was much quieter than a gasoline car. An educational researcher from Washington, she normally drives a Honda Civic.

"I would much rather have a hydrogen than anything gas powered," she said.

So far, several thousand people have driven the vehicles on the tour.

Hydrogen is a good fuel source for many reasons, Johnston said. Hydrogen can be manufactured from a variety of different products, including water; it has no emissions, which is important for improving urban air quality; it is safer than gasoline because it cannot catch fire, and it is predicted that eventually the cost per mile to operate a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and maintenance costs will be less than current vehicles.

Earl Lawson, vice president of commercial development for Linde North America, which produces hydrogen, said hydrogen has been produced and used for decades in technology such as space shuttles and material processing.

He said hydrogen is a renewable resource if it is taken from water. It can also be taken from natural gas and other chemicals. He said creating hydrogen-fueled vehicles is an important step toward energy independence and economic growth.

Hydrogen cars are fueled at stations with pumps, in a process similar to filling a tank with gasoline. Only about 60 hydrogen stations exist in the U.S., Barrett said.

The vehicles going on tour are the BMW Hydrogen Series 7, the Daimler Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, the GM Chevy Equinox FCV, the Honda FCX Clarity, the Hyundai Tucson FCV, the Kia Sportage FCV, the Nissan X-Trail FCV, the Toyota Highlander FCHV, and the Volkswagen Touran and Tiguan HyMotion. more

Holy man, secular plan: clean up the River Ganges

Sunday 03 August 2008 at 03:43 am Holy man, secular plan: clean up the River Ganges

By Mian Ridge

Varanasi, India - Most mornings, as the sun steals over the Ganges, Veer Bhadra Mishra takes a dip in India's holiest river. As high priest of a Hindu temple, it is his solemn duty. But as a scientist, the ritual is profoundly discomforting.

The Ganges, revered as a symbol of spiritual purity for more than 2,000 years, is today a filthy soup. This is especially true in the ancient pilgrimage site of Varanasi, where 32 old pipes on the riverbank disgorge raw sewage into the flow.

"I have a rationally trained mind," says the retired professor of hydraulics, who says he has contracted potentially fatal diseases from Ganges water. "But I also have a passionately committed heart." more