Thursday, June 21, 2007

Global warming threatens sacred Hindu river

What did God mean when he established his covenant with Noah? "Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth." Clearly he didn't mean massive flooding had lost its power to kill the masses, but He says a few verses later that "never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life."

OK. Well, scientists and policy wonks are increasingly saying that climate change -- which is not God's doing but our own -- is setting the stage for some cataclysmic future flooding.

Last week, I mentioned how Jewish leaders are beginning to frame global warming as a looming catastrophe for Israel. Then The Washington Post had this report on global warming's indirect threat to millions upon millions more people.

VARANASI, India -- With her eyes sealed, Ramedi cupped the murky water of the Ganges River in her hands, lifted them toward the sun, and prayed for her husband, her 15 grandchildren and her bad hip. She, like the rest of India's 800 million Hindus, has absolute faith that the river she calls Ganga Ma can heal.

Around Ramedi, who like some Indians has only one name, people converged on the riverbank in the early morning, before the day's heat set in. Women floated necklaces of marigolds on a boat of leaves, a dozen skinny boys soaped their hair as they bathed in their underwear, and a somber group of men carried a body to the banks of the river, a common ritual before the dead are cremated on wooden funeral pyres. To be cremated beside the Ganges, most here believe, brings salvation from the cycle of rebirth.

"Ganga Ma is everything to Hindus. It's our chance to attain nirvana," Ramedi said, emerging from the river, her peach-colored sari dripping along the shoreline.

But the prayer rituals carried out at the water's edge may not last forever -- or even another generation, according to scientists and meteorologists. The Himalayan source of Hinduism's holiest river, they say, is drying up.

In this 3,000-year-old city known as the Jerusalem of India for its intense religious devotion, climate change could throw into turmoil something many devout Hindus thought was immutable: their most intimate religious traditions. The Gangotri glacier, which provides up to 70 percent of the water of the Ganges during the dry summer months, is shrinking at a rate of 40 yards a year, nearly twice as fast as two decades ago, scientists say.

"This may be the first place on Earth where global warming could hurt our very religion. We are becoming an endangered species of Hindus," said Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and director of the Varanasi-based Sankat Mochan Foundation, an organization that advocates for the preservation of the Ganges. "The melting glaciers are a terrible thing. We have to ask ourselves, who are the custodians of our culture if we can't even help our beloved Ganga?"

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