Above, the western Himalaya spot where the Ganges begins, at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers.
From May to December, a female-led Nat Geo expedition team traveled the length of India’s holiest river, from sea to source, to get an unprecedented view of plastic pollution in a watershed–and ultimately, how to solve it.
As visual storytellers, immersive producer Veda Shastri and photographer and Nat Geo Explorer Sara Hylton depicted a complex and nuanced portrait of the Ganges—the dependence on both the river and plastic for people who live alongside it; their utmost respect and love for it; and their relative powerlessness at changing the structures that lead to plastic pollution.
“It was eye-opening seeing how dependent and integrated with the river the communities were—the spiritual component has a sanctity regardless of the levels of pollution,” Veda tells me. “It is truly a life source—for everyday sustenance.”
For Veda, the end of the 2019 journey, published in the April issue of National Geographic, is what stays with her. As they traveled upstream, the team witnessed a marked reduction in the level of pollution, and by the time they reached the city of Rishikesh, they were able to get a more unadulterated view of the Ganges.
“Incredible to witness that magic,” she says.
Fishing amid the trash: Fisherman Babu Sahni, 30, and his eight-year-old son, Himanshu Kumar Sahni, approach a bank on a Ganges tributary. Trash collection is rare in rural India, and ad hoc dump sites like this one are common. Most plastic waste in the ocean gets there by washing off the land.
Before the goddess is submerged: Celebrants transport a likeness of the goddess Durga through the streets of Howrah, near Kolkata, during the Durga Puja festival. It ends with the immersion of the idols in a tributary of the Ganges.
A personal interest in a cleaner river: Swami Shivanand Saraswati, 75, bathes in the Ganges at his Matri Sadan ashram in Haridwar. He leads a long-running and ambitious campaign to protect the river from mining, new dams, and pollution.