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It’s difficult to overestimate the influence the Ganges River has had on northern India. The river, also known as the Ganga, begins in the Himalayas in northwestern India and flows eastward to Bangladesh (its own geography dominated by the massive deltas at the mouths of the Ganges). Silt and build-up make the river largely unnavigable and therefore unfit for largescale trade and transport, but also irrigate some of the most fertile farm land in the world for everything from rice and wheat to pulses and vegetables. The world’s third-largest river by discharge, its tributaries and floodwaters support the densest concentration of human life on the planet.

Sacred to Hindus and revered by many South Asian communities, the Ganges plays a central role in the everyday life of literally hundreds of millions of people. Despite this reverence, the Ganges is also one of the most polluted waterways in the world. Industrial waste, agricultural runoff, raw sewage and even corpses are common throughout the nearly 1,600 miles of the river, impacting the health and quality of life for the massive population it supports. This unfortunate combination of extreme fertility, densely populated shores and a lack of good transport options means that northern India, despite all its potential, remains one of the poorest regions on Earth.

For more on the future of India, see Chapters 8 and 12 in The Absent Superpower.