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Why is it believed that the Ganges is self-cleaning?

I've also heard people do not get sick from bathing in it from  special properties - don't know how scientific these are.
Balaji ViswanathanBalaji Viswanathan, Product Manager at a Venture f... (more)
647 upvotes by Harit Himanshu, Quora User, Azhar Hussain, (more)
Without the monsoons, India is almost a desert. Thus, the perennial rivers that flows throughout the year like Ganga, Yamuna, Brahmaputra and Sindhu (Indus) are given a high importance in the culture.

Indians have traditionally celebrated all the rivers. Rising from a river valley civilization, it was but natural to celebrate the rivers this way. Given that a river water is a running one, it was typically the cleanest alternative that the ancient people got. You can see Hindus celebrating rivers as holy, across India.

Ganga gets the highest attention, because it passes through the center of the densest plains in India. These plains formed the core of the Indian civilization with Ganga at the center and thus Ganga got a bigger reputation.

Medicinal qualities

Throughout history, people found many medicinal qualities in the Ganga water.  There were many research reports that Ganga water possesses the antibacterial properties through Bacteriophage and these were first discovered in the waters of Ganga Bacteriophage prehistory.

This 2009 paper claims that:
These findings suggest that Ganga water has certain novel antimicrobial attributes, besides its remarkable fluidity, which may provide a much-needed basis for the development of new antimicrobial compounds.
Self-purificatory Ganga water facilitates dea... [Curr Microbiol. 2009]

In this 1993 paper, authors claim that:
Dissolved oxygen (DO) levels are are fairly high, indicating a reasonable self-purifying capability for the River Ganga.
Water quality of the River Ganga (The Ganges) and some of its physico-chemical properties

More works:
Mystery Factor Gives Ganges a Clean Reputation
Polluted Ganga still has medicinal qualities

These days, this water is quite abused substantially - with detergents, industrial effluents and sewage. The river's medicinal qualities cannot handle these things and are thus quite harmful for human consumption. Like the major rivers around the world, we have substantially polluted the river and even the great properties of Ganga cannot take the infinite amount of abuse we are putting her through.
Sridhar RameshSridhar Ramesh, I am an expert on what I think... (more)
49 upvotes by Kartik Ayyar, Sameer Gupta, Ishaan Singh, (more)
Culture and religion can cause people to believe and say awfully silly things. The Ganges is highly revered and thought to have supernatural powers in traditional Indian and Hindu culture. However, in modern times, the river is extraordinarily polluted. Believing the river to have super-self-cleaning abilities is a consolation in the face of harsh realities. But people very much do get sick from the Ganges...

See, for example :
"The overall rate of water-borne/enteric disease incidence, including acute gastrointestinal disease, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis-A, and typhoid, was estimated to be about 66% during the one-year period prior to the survey. Logistic regression analysis revealed significant associations between water-borne/enteric disease occurrence and the use of the river for bathing, laundry, washing eating utensils, and brushing teeth. Thirty-three cases of cholera were identified among families exposed to washing clothing or bathing in the Ganges while no cholera cases occurred in unexposed families."
Gaurav KhairnarGaurav Khairnar, Pharmacist,proud indian
Along the 4 mile (6.4 kilometres) stretch of terraced bathing ghats in the holy city of Varanasi, the water of the Ganges is a "brown soup of excrement and industrial effluents." The water there contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml, 120 times the official limit of 500 faecal coliforms/100ml that is not considered safe for bathing.

For Hindus in India, the Ganges is not just a river but a mother, a goddess, a tradition, a culture, and much more. On November 4, 2008, the Prime Minister of India declared Holy Ganga as the National River of India. But the most sacred river in India is so gunked up with industrial and human waste that many Hindus are now understandably hesitant about diving in it to ritually cleanse their souls, as the Hindu faith directs, and people who are taking baths in it are complaining about skin diseases.

But why doesn't the Ganges spread epidemic disease among the millions of Indians who bathe in it along its course? The Ganges River's long-held reputation as a purifying river appears to have a basis in science.

First of all, the river carries bacteriophages that vanquish bacteria and more. As reported in a National Public Radio program, dysentery and cholera are killed off, preventing large-scale epidemics. The river has an unusual ability to retain dissolved oxygen, but the reason for this ability is unknown.

DS Bhargava, a retired professor of hydrology, who has spent a lifetime performing experiments up and down the Ganges in the plains of India, says that in most rivers, organic material usually exhausts a river's available oxygen and starts putrefying. But in the Ganges, an unknown substance, or "X factor" that Indians refer to as a "disinfectant," acts on organic materials and bacteria and kills them. Bhargava says that the Ganges' self-purifying quality leads to oxygen levels 25 times higher than any other river in the world.

But that was a few years back. Now on the other hand, an eminent river expert and head of the Ganga Research Laboratory, Institute of Technology (IT-BHU), Prof UK Chowdhary urges to save the Ganga, which he says is gradually losing its oxygen absorption and retention capacity, adding that the Ganga was the only river in the world which had 12ppm of oxygen. "The Ganga was once known as the reservoir of oxygen. But, today, it's oxygen has reduced to 4-8ppm," he said. The Ganges' purifying action has strong scientific evidence, but that power of Ganges is slowly giving up.

So, we, the proud citizens of India should try to maintain the Ganga's purity by small caring measures...
Roney MichaelRoney Michael, Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galac... (more)
Laxmi MenonLaxmi Menon, Teacher
1 upvote by Manseet Swaroop.
Well. its common belief that the water from Ganges contain something called Bacteriophages which inturn kill other micro organisms like disease causing bacteria, virus and other mocrobes. This could be a justifiable scientific reason to the above-mentioned question!
Sneha PrasadSneha Prasad, Curious and rewiring grey matter
16 upvotes by Lakshmi Narasimhan Parthasarathy, Azhar Hussain, Quora User, (more)
There are two major factors which give Ganges its unique ability.
1. The presence of Bacteriophages which gives it the anti-bacterial nature.
Bacteriophage are those viruses which kill bacteria. The waters of Ganga when added to other water resources in adequate amount, causes the bacteriophage in it to quickly multiply cleaning the new water resource of any bacteria present in it. Which is why the ancient Indians used to take Ganga jal back home to clean their local water resources! Also, the water of river Ganga can be an alternative for using antibiotics to treat bacterial diseases! Ancient Indians who used the water of rivers like Ganga never required any antibiotics, for the very water they used was anti-bacterial in nature!

2. An unknown factor called the Mystery Factor, which gives this river an unusual ability to retain dissolved oxygen from the atmosphere! The Ganges' self-purifying quality leads to oxygen levels 25 times higher than any other river in the world. The high levels of oxygen in the waters of Ganga gives it the unique ability to remain fresh over a prolonged period of time.

3. Its fast flowing nature combined with low temperature ( ` 5 degree Celsius)  gives it many unique qualities like mosquitoes can't breed in it, things can be refrigerated ( Seen in Rishkesh where Milkman used dip Milkcans in it to reduce temperature hence preserving food items).
1 upvote by Manseet Swaroop.
Every river is self cleaning.

You must understand that cleaning here is nothing but oxidation.

So every river when it gushes through ups, downs and through turns so on, it gets oxidation. More the turbulence more the water that gets exposed to the atmosphere and gets oxidation.

Turbulence = exposure = oxidation = higher dissolved oxygen = better decomposition of waste = cleaning.

As simple as that.
Kael FischerKael Fischer, Res. Asst. Prof. of Pathology
The Ganges has antibacterial activity as a result of the bacteriaphages that inhabit it.  The Ganges was one of the first sites these filterable bacteria killing agents were discovered.

This does not mean the Ganges is safe to drink.  These phages are found everywhere and in particularity high levels where there are lots of bacteria.  Some of the best early (but 10 years after the results from India) characterizations of this biology was done using filtered material from the Paris sewers, and you shouldn't drink that either.
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