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The Water Purifier Comes Built-In

The Water Purifier Comes Built-In

The secret behind the Ganga’s ability to self-rejuvenate its waters continues to elude discovery

The Water Purifier Comes Built-In Jitender Gupta

In 2009, when C.S. Nautiyal, now the director of Lucknow’s National Botanical Research Institute, spiked a fresh Ganga water sample with an infectious strain of Escherichia coli to test the Ganga’s reported self-healing qualities, he found that the bacteria lasted no longer than three days. He repeated the experiment with a 16-year-old sample of Ganga water—the strain didn’t survive for more than 15 days. Is there something exceptional about the holy river’s water? Such claims are nothing new. In 1896, British bacteriologist Ernest Hankin reported the water’s ability to kill bacteria responsible for cholera. Because of its ability to stay fresh for months, the British always carried water from the Ganga on their ships back to England. And millions of Indians still swear by the water’s mysterious ability to stay clean in their bottles and not smell foul.

There are sceptics, including those who conflate such claims with Hindutva propaganda, but this hasn’t deterred people from researching the water. There is no incontrovertible explanation yet, though many hypotheses have been offered. Some say the river supports a large and active population of macrophages—parasites that multiply exponentially by attacking other bacteria—while others argue that it has certain beneficial radioactive ions brought down from the Himalayas that help purify the water. Another school attributes this trait to the vegetation debris that is washed along in the river’s flow. There is also an argument that high levels of dissolved oxygen in Ganga water helps it decompose organic matter, preventing them from putrefying.

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