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Tue30Sep2014

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The wettest desert on earth

Text and photographs by Shailendra Yashwant

Sohra (Cherrapunji) and Mawsynram's water crisis is entirely man-made, a visit to the world's wettest place reveals

cherrapunji

Coal mining is an entirely unregulated cottage industry

Everyone knows Cherrapunji or Sohra (its original and now official name) or Cherra (as it is fondly referred to by expat Khasis) due to a geographical quirk that makes it and the nearby village of Mawsynram the wettest places on the sub-continent. Sohra holds the world record for most rainfall on a single day and Mawsynram is the world record-holder for most rains in a calendar year.

Sohra, perched on a plateau at 1,300 metres in the southern Khasi hills, would have been the northeastern capital of British India, but they found the place too wet and moved on to Shillong, 60 km further northeast. Shillong of course remained the chosen capital of undivided Assam until 1971.

Sohra and Mawsynram sit on a ridge on top of a funnel formed by two mountain ranges. Moist winds from the Bay of Bengal pour into the funnel and as the passage narrows, these winds rise and cool. The moisture then condenses and falls in a torrent of rain on these two villages making it a huge attraction for hordes of domestic tourists who flock here to "experience the non-stop rains".

Sohra receives about 11,777 mm (463.7 in) of annual rainfall between June and October but all those millions of cubic tonnes of water simply drain down the mountains into the Bay of Bengal via the plains of Bangladesh less than 250 miles below, leaving Sohra parched and thirsty every year. When the monsoons disappear Sohra is dry and there is no water to drink by November. By December the locals are at the mercy of the tanker-gods as is evident from the annual news picture of women and children clamouring for drinking water at tankers or trudging uphill with their pots to suck up some water from the depths of the mountains.

Centuries of incessant rains have washed away topsoil on the plateau, leaving behind undulating grasslands, but the hardier perennial temperate forests hidden in the folds and crevices of the mountains have all but disappeared. Massive deforestation over the last few decades has further exacerbated the situation by destroying the only refuge for springs and protected waterbodies. To make matters worse the menace of widespread unscientific coalmining and limestone quarrying has polluted and depleted water levels in the perennial catchment areas of the region, compounding the scarcity of drinking water.

Cherrapunji waterfalls
Cherrapunji waterfalls

The Delhi-based Central Laboratory of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which conducted an analysis of water samples collected from these rivers, said the water was highly 'acidic', rendering it unsuitable to support life forms. Another report submitted by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board to the state government and CPCB, Delhi, said, "Mine run-off from coalmines is the major probable cause of water pollution in the area." "The undesirable change in water quality affects a variety of flora and fauna of the rivers. Fish, as such, are susceptible to acidity and low pH values are unsuitable for most aquatic organisms," the report said.

Interestingly, despite the discovery of an abundance of coal and other minerals in the state, due to the unique governance challenges complicated by the presence of three autonomous councils, the state is yet to agree on a coherent and comprehensive mining policy. Since most coal deposits are small, isolated and regulated by private operators, the Meghalaya government prefers to stand aside, deeming it uneconomical to invest in investigating the dire ecological impacts of this cottage industry. As a result, landholders, usually sitting in Shillong, start coal mining as a cottage industry, taking it for granted that mining is a customary right independent of environmental obligations.

On my way here I had seen many 2-3-feet-high structures, very like small stone dollhouses with plastic roofs, under which are hidden the infamous rat-holes, 3-4 feet wide tunnels in which small-built and agile workers, usually children, are lowered to pull out coal.

But now newspapers are reporting how the limestone quarries and coalmines have made the ground below Sohra -- like many parts of Jaintia and the Garo Hills -- a hollow cavern, a void created by the illegal mining, which could cave in at any time, along with entire towns of 90,000-plus populations. A draft mining policy has finally been presented to the state assembly but no action is expected before the next elections as it is rumored that every third lawmaker has some links to mining.

Mawphlang's sacred groves
Mawphlang's sacred groves

The misery of it all was apparent on the faces of people I encountered in Sohra bazaar, which also doubles as the bus and taxi stand. You'd think that with all the mining on private land some of the wealth would be visible in the town. But despite the forced smile of the rosy-cheeked women and the light banter over salted chai with some Khasi men, the atmosphere was generally strained. There were no visible signs of prosperity among the rain-hardened souls that crowded the bazaar. There was no water in the taps at the bazaar. There was not a single rainbow or cloud in the sky either. Not yet.

I asked Isabella Gonon, a cherubic lady I met at the teashop, whether it was normal to have no rains at all in Cherrapunji, and the young teacher was quick to retort, "Yes, it has been reducing every year and I have seen more dry days in the last few years than even I remember. My mother remembers it rained every night throughout the year, even if for a few hours or minutes. By now the monsoon should have set in, but there are no clouds in the sky." What did she attribute the reduced rainfall to? "Climate change," was her quick response, "don't you know?" and she winked and was out of there like lightening.

Reduced rainfall, increased temperatures, freak storms, weird weather, everything that the climate scientists have warned the world about plays out here in real life. According to Dr S V Ngachan, Regional Director, ICAR Northeast, "Barapani in Meghalaya alone has recorded a rise in temperature by 2 degrees Celsius in the last decade and rainfall in world-famous Cherrapunji has reduced substantially over the years, changing the weather cycle of the region. The rest of the Northeast region has recorded an increase in temperature by 0.08 degrees Celsius in the last decade along with static dispersion of seasonal weather phenomena in the region."

It is a well-known fact that high rainfall does not ensure perennial water supply for infinity. Sohra's drinking water crisis is entirely man-made. It is the inability to harvest and store water for a population that has doubled over two decades that is at the heart of Sohra's water problem. The creaking old water pipelines laid by the British supply water to 13,000 houses in Sohra town. They cannot meet the demands of the whole town, the adjacent rural areas and the settlements of 5,000 coal and limestone labourers. An ambitious Rs 4.13 crore Greater Sohra Water Supply scheme implemented in 2010 has run into trouble as its source, the Wah Lyngksiar river, has tested highly acidic and unfit for drinking by the North Eastern Hill University. Following objections from the local durbars a water treatment plant has been built, but the locals are still wary of drinking the water.

It is at Sohra that one realises the follies of looking towards the government as the 'munificent provider' of water, especially given the ancient custom of community control over commons that was prevalent amongst the Khasis, like so many other indigenous peoples of the region. Almost 20 years ago, the late Anil Aggarwal, environmentalist, writing on the need to revive traditional water harvesting systems, had proposed that the state's role should be largely limited to the provision of technical advice and seed capital, and even that should be with the participation of users in water planning and management. The community needs a sense of ownership, responsibility and involvement in the management of the systems if any attempt to revive water-harvesting systems is to succeed.

The trick is to build on the inbuilt cultural matrix of traditional systems to regenerate and develop traditional water harvesting systems and inculcate an attitude of judicious use of water.

Inside the Mawphlang sacred grove
Inside the Mawphlang sacred grove

A fine example of a traditional and community-based system of conservation that has persisted till today are the 79 sacred forest groves all over Meghalaya. There are four main categories of sacred groves as formulated by the Durbar of Khasis in 1925 – Ki Law Lyngdoh (forests under the control of the traditional religious leader or village council, no public use permitted), Ki Law Kyntang (forests of great sacred value for sacrificial and religious ceremonies), Ki Law Adong (forest protected for non-commercial use eg water), Ki Law Shnong (forest resources for village use). These sacred groves play a crucial role in soil and water conservation. They usually hold water resources in the form of springs, ponds, lakes, streams or rivers and the vegetative mass of the grove sponges up the water, often providing the only source of water for animals and birds in times of drought.

I visited one such well-preserved community-managed sacred grove at Mawphlang in East Khasi Hills District. Located about 25 km from Shillong at 5,600 feet (1842m) on a gently rolling ridge top, the 75-hectares dense wet temperate forests of Mawphlang are a unique habitat with impressive biodiversity that has been protected since the settlement of the area 100 years ago. Ancient stone megaliths dot the forest of oak, chestnuts, alder, figs and rhododendrons with a prolific variety of epiphytic ferns, orchids and pipers. Four hundred tree species and unusual orchids, mushrooms, amphibians and birds have been recorded in the sacred forest according to council records.

Khasi lady stepping out into the rain
Khasi lady stepping out into the rain

The sacred grove of Mawphlang is managed by a religious chief (Lyngdoh) who together with the village headman and clan chiefs ensures that the responsibilities for forest protection, fire control and rituals are shared by the local community. But most importantly the elders knew that the greatest value of forests is sustainable water supply. In 2005 the Mawphlang community collaborated with California-based Community Forestry International (CFI) on a potential REDD project to stop further degradation of the forest and reinforce its watershed areas. REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation degradation) is a controversial mechanism proposed (and now disposed of) by the UN to encourage developing nations to preserve their forests by giving an economic value to the carbon saved by stopping deforestation. Critics argue that in REDD projects, which entail entering into a complex financial arrangement with international stakeholders, would endanger the very control of the community over the commons.

Whatever be the fate of the Mawphlang's attempt to qualify as India's first pilot REDD project, the fact remains that the secret of the survival of sacred groves is the delicate fabric of myth, legend and religious belief woven together by centuries of experience and wisdom.

'Catching water where it falls', the basic principle of rainwater harvesting, has today proved to be the best way to extend the bounties of the monsoon. The revival of that tradition, and engaging the community in a holistic fashion to do so, is the only viable solution to Sohra's water crisis. For that matter, it is the only viable solution to the water crisis facing the rest of the country today.

Sohra to me is a perfect example of how the fate of forests, mountains, rivers and all creatures living in them -- including the human species -- is intertwined. You bring one down and the rest come tumbling after.

Infochange News & Features, October 2012