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Global warming threatens to dry up Ganges

VARANASI, India -- With her eyes closed, 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 India's other 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 on 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 never thought possible: 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.

Environmental groups such as Mishra's have long focused on the pollution of the Ganges. More than 100 cities and countless villages are situated along the 1,568-mile river, which stretches from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, and few of them have sewage treatment plants.

But recent reports by scientists say the Ganges is under an even greater threat from global warming.

According to a UN climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of the Ganges could disappear by 2030 as temperatures rise.

The shrinking glaciers also threaten Asia's supply of fresh water. The World Wildlife Fund in March listed the Ganges among the world's 10 most endangered rivers. In India, the river provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.

The immediate effect of glacier recession is a short-lived surplus of water. But eventually the supply runs out, and specialists predict that the Ganges will eventually become a seasonal river, largely dependent on monsoon rains.

"There has never been a greater threat for the Ganges," said Mahesh Mehta, an environmental lawyer who has been filing lawsuits against corporations dumping toxins in the Ganges. He is now redirecting his energies toward the melting glaciers.

"If humans don't change their interference, our very religion, our livelihoods are under threat."

Mehta and other environmentalists want to see the Indian government enforce strict reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of climate change.

But during this month's Group of Eight conference of the major industrialized nations, both India and China, eager to protect their market growth, joined the United States in refusing to support mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

President Bush has instead pushed a plan for nonbinding goals to reduce emissions.