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You are here: Home | Water resources | Environment | Loktak: A dying lake | Ditty for a dying lake

Ditty for a dying lake

By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

The Loktak Hydropower Project commissioned in 1983 has damaged the ecology of the largest freshwater lake in the northeast, and altered the culture, agricultural and livelihood patterns of communities residing around Loktak. The first in this FES-Infochange Media Fellowship series on Loktak, looks at what this common property resource used to be and what it has become

Read | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |

In the shadows of your footsteps
Many lives exist
On your nature’s bounty
Many lives lean
O, beloved mother Loktak
O, beloved mother Loktak …
(from Ranbir Thouna’s song, Loktak

Thanga village on the Loktak banks

It might seem rather ironic that a lake that has inspired so many songs and paeans over the centuries should now need songs championing its survival.

But Loktak, the largest freshwater lake in northeast India, needs as many champions as it can get if it is to survive, let alone regain its glory. This is where Ranbir Thouna, leading Manipuri singer, composer and ad filmmaker, steps in.

From organising concerts and a cycle rally to releasing an album and booklet on the lake, Thouna has been campaigning for the protection of the lake. The musical campaign ‘Save Loktak, Our Life’ is reminiscent of AR Rahman’s efforts to save the Taj Mahal.

“I grew up on the banks of Loktak, dependent on it for our vegetables, fish and survival,” he said, adding, “It is so much part of our history and culture.”

Eighty-one-year-old Maisnam ningol Ibemhal’s life is linked to Loktak in a different way. Though a resident of Singjamei area in Imphal West district, Ibemhal and her family had sought refuge in Thanga during the Second World War, known here as the Japan War. 

Ibemhal takes a last look at Thanga and Loktak before returning home

Despite being warned against it after the diagnosis of a heart ailment three months ago, she is adamant about making the 50 km trip to Thanga island from Manipur’s capital city of Imphal.

“I must see Thanga, the place which gave us refuge; I want to see if the friends I played with are still there. But above all I want to see the sparkling waters of Loktak from the Thanga hills,” she whispers. As an 11-year-old, she would climb to the Thanga hill to watch the Japanese and RAF bombings of the state.

Two of her daughters – 53-year-old Nalini Mangsatabam, and 50-year-old Pramodini Mangsatabam, both educationists -- tagged along on the trip down memory lane, worried about their mother’s wellbeing. Her son Rajen was also roped in on the journey.

Returning to the Thanga hills and the Loktak after seven decades, Ibemhal eagerly asks our hosts about the people she used to know. Most of them are no longer alive. The mandap or religious community hall attached to a temple, where her family was housed as war refugees too wasn’t there anymore.

The lake has undergone drastic changes, especially in the last three decades. “The water used to stretch for miles into the horizon glinting in the sunlight like a giant mirror,” Ibemhal sighs nostalgically, gazing at the green phumdis (floating biomass) dotting the lake.

It has not only been the geographical topography of the lake that has changed in the last few decades. According to environmentalist Kh Shamungou, the lake is also beset by increasing pollution, siltation, rapid proliferation of phumdis and the commissioning of the Loktak hydel project in the 1980s.

Seventy years ago, when Ibemhal was a child, Loktak Lake was already the keeper of tales and history in Manipur. Said to be formed in times when humankind and the gods frolicked and intrigued together, Loktak Lake has been a reservoir of myths, legends, romances and paeans. The timeless romance of Khamba and Thoibi was interwoven with Loktak Lake, while many of the scenes in Meitei folklore and legends were played out on the shores of the lake.

Located between 24°25’ to 24°42’N latitude and 93°46’to 93°55’E, the 300-square-km lake is spread over three districts in the valley – Imphal West, Bisnupur and Thoubal. Around 132 plant species found in the lake are used as food, fuel, fodder and medicine. The 54 fish species found here feed the fish-loving people of the state. Besides being the source of livelihood for hundreds of people, Loktak also houses the floating national park Keibul Lamjao, the only home in the world to the endangered Sangai deer.

The Loktak is not only the largest freshwater lake in the northeast but also the largest lake in the Manipur river basin, covering 61% of the total identified wetlands of Manipur.  In reality, it comprises about 20 small and large lakes including Loktak, Takmu, Ungamen, Laphupat, Thammumacha, Khulak, Yena, Sana pat, Utra pat and Tharopokpi. This topography becomes quite distinct during the lean season. During the monsoons, the lakes are meshed together in a contiguous water body.

The parting of the lakes has, however, become another legend connected to Loktak waters. In 1983, the Loktak Hydropower Project on the Manipur or Imphal River, with the Loktak Lake forming the headwaters to provide regulated storage for power generation, was built. It was a multipurpose project with power generation of 105 MW for power supply to Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Tripura, and lift irrigation to 23,000 ha (57,000 acres) in the Manipur valley.

A major component of the project is the 10.7 m high and 58.8 m long Ithai barrage constructed at the confluence of the Manipur River, the Khuga River and the Ungamel channel near Ithai village, south of Loktak. The water level at the Ithai barrage is maintained throughout the year at 786.5 m to provide adequate supply for the hydro project.

However this has meant that the lake water is at a permanent high level, not only submerging the identity of the Loktak Lake and the smaller lakes but also changing the hydrological regime, ecosystem and life culture of the people living in and around the lakes.

“Earlier, during the winter, when water was low, we would grow paddy and vegetables in the water floor left behind by the retreating lake. So, we had our rice, our own vegetables and fish. Now that there is no seasonal fluctuation in the water level, we buy everything except fish from the mainland,” says 62-year-old Heisnam Sajou of Thanga village.

The Ithai barrage has also played a significant role in the proliferation of loose phumdi which are now choking the lake. It led to the congestion and stagnation of the vegetation mass in the lake and a reduction in the clear water surface. It also encouraged the process of eutrophication in the lake.

Heisnam Sajou with his grandchild

“Earlier, we would cut the unused phumdi into strips and let it flow out from the lake through the Khordak channel to the Manipur River. Thus it would go on its own way to the sea through the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system in western Myanmar. During the dry seasons when the lake waters receded, we would burn the phumdi left in piles on the banks and lake floor,” recalls Sajou.

Another fallout of the Ithai barrage is the loss of indigenous fish varieties and depletion of aquatic plants. “Earlier fish varieties like pengba used to come upstream from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system to spawn in Loktak and the adjoining wetlands. The Ithai barrage blocked the traditional migration of fish species and has led to their extinction from the state,” says Dr Shamungou.

“The Sangai deer is also in danger because the high water level has adversely affected the vegetation growth on phumdis on which it feeds,” he pointed out, adding, “Nowadays it is hard to find a large number of popular aquatic plants from the lake especially heikak, loklei, pullei, etc which are relished by the people as food.” 

A large tract of agricultural as well as settlement lands on the periphery of the lake was also submerged by the Ithai barrage leading to loss of livelihood and displacement.

The Ithai barrage and the Loktak hydro power projects are not the only factors contributing to the pitiful condition of Loktak Lake. Urbanisation and siltation from catchment areas too have played significant roles.

According to the Economic Survey of Manipur 2009-2010, Manipur ranks second among the northeastern states in respect of urbanisation. The urban population has increased from 5.06 lakh in 1991 to 5.76 lakh in 2001. However, the drainage and solid waste management system has remained fairly outdated and unorganised, leading to wastes leaching into the water bodies.  The Rivers Nambul and Nambol flowing through urban stretches of Imphal and Bishnupur respectively directly discharge pollutants, nutrient loads, and solid wastes especially plastics, into the Loktak Lake.

According to the State of the Environment report of the Manipur Environment and Ecology Department, the Nambul river (which passes through the heart of Imphal city), dumps 4.9 million tonnes of solid waste and 2,121 cum of sewage into the lake every year. All wastes directly or indirectly find their way into Loktak Lake.

Run-off from agricultural fields has also contributed significantly to siltation in the Loktak and pollution in several water bodies. According to the Economic Survey of Manipur, 2009-2010, fertiliser consumption was 67.40 thousand tonnes in 2007-09.

All these factors have combined to transform Loktak from “the lifeline of Manipur” to “the sick man of Manipur.” However, even as environmentalists, government agencies and the general public try to address the issue of proper management and conservation of Loktak Lake and its associated wetlands, there seems to be no concerted effort between the different stakeholders including the people living on the periphery of the lake who are dependent on its resources for their livelihood.

“We need the support of all the people of the state as well as the related authorities – not just lip service but real action,” says Ranbir Thouna.

“If Loktak dies, Manipur and its people will also be extinct. Therefore the Save Loktak, Our Life campaign is not just to save Loktak, but through it to reclaim our history and culture. What better way than to sing about Loktak using our traditional and cultural styles,” he adds.

(Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a Manipur-based journalist. She won the FES-Infochange Media Fellowship on Common Property Resources this year for her series on the impact of modernisation, development and state policy on the traditional use, control and management of Loktak Lake, the largest common property aquatic resource in Manipur. This is the first in her series) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2010

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