The Ganges River, which today has a reputation for rampant pollution contrasted with a religious conception of the river as purifying, seems a strange place to look for a method of fighting disease. The river’s purifying properties turn out to have a basis in science—a basis that could also provide a powerful alternative for antibiotics, especially in light of growing concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The Ganges stands out from other rivers in many ways, some of which remain scientifically perplexing. For one, despite the millions of people who bathe in the river for religious ceremonies, epidemics occur far less frequently and are less severe than might reasonably be expected. Theories vary about what about the Ganges disinfects the water, but its oxygen levels are remarkably high—in fact, 25 times higher than any other river—as a result. Normally, organic material exhausts the oxygen, but it appears that something in the Ganges kills enough organic material, including bacteria, to counteract this effect despite the massive amounts of bacteria entering the river from human bathing, raw sewage, and corpses.