Crisis call

Kordor Sohtun wakes up at four in the morning and the first thing he does is reserve a space in front of the public tap near his house. He fetches eight buckets of water before heading off to office. This is his daily routine, come rain or shine, as water is a precious commodity here.
Sohtun is among hundreds of people living in different localities of Shillong which face acute water crisis. Empty buckets in a serpentine queue in front of a public tap are a common sight in many areas. In some localities, residents wake up as early as 3am just to ensure that they are in the front of the queue. Their eager eyes remain glued to the dry tap and any attempt to strike a conversation is met with prevarication.
Shillong, which is dreaming of becoming a smart city, reels from acute water crisis that turns severe in winter when water sources dry up.
“My family requires 60-70 litres of water every day. We have a pipeline at home but most of the time there is no water and even if it is there, the flow is bad. It is not adequate. So during crisis I try to wake up as early as possible,” says Sohtun, a resident of Lawsohtun. He adds that February and March are the worst time.
But no matter how early he wakes up, he always finds people waiting at the tap. A middle-aged woman in Block IV of Lawsohtun was sitting near a public tap with her four empty buckets. She was the first in the queue, a coveted position desired by many harrowed residents. She looked oblivious to the world around herself and when spoken to, tried to evade questions on the crisis. Asked how she managed to get the first place, the woman replied, with a hint of rudeness in her voice, “I got up at 2am.”
This is the time of the year when the crisis is not acute and queues are not frightening. “So we get the chance to go to the tap several times without anyone objecting to it,” smiles Sohtun.
In Laban and Rilbong, localities not far from Sohtun’s house, the crisis is equally severe. Many households are forced to buy water despite PHE pipelines and supply from the municipality. Those running commercial buildings like guest houses face a tough time managing water resources.
M Ahmed, who is the caretaker of a guest house in Rilbong locality, says he spent over Rs 55,000 on pipelines in the beginning of this year “and still the crisis persists”.
“The relief was for a few months after the pipelines were fixed. Now, I have to buy water again,” he says, adding that his guest house gets water from the municipality and the source of water has almost dried up causing much distress.
There are two tanks in Ahmed’s guest house and he has to shell out over Rs 1,100 a day to fill them up. “We cannot let our guests go without water. Then there are our staff and the drivers who come with tourist vehicles. The crisis is too much to tide over,” he informs.
Though precious, one would often see water being wasted in these localities. Broken and leaking pipes in Rilbong and Laban are a common sight. Water gushes out of the cracks and flows down the drain while residents are left high and dry.
Ahmed points out that the pipeline that connects to his guest house often gets damaged and he has to summon workers from the municipality to get it fixed. “In fact, I pay a person from the municipality every month to maintain the pipeline,” he says.
Nongrah and Mawlai are also among the localities where residents have to either buy water or wait at the locality taps. For some households in these places, carrying buckets of water is part of the daily work.
A resident of Nongrah says there are six members in her house and she has to cough up Rs 1,300 a month for steady supply of water. “The water comes from a private source every morning. For 10 years, we have been paying for water every month,” she informs.
Those who cannot afford to buy water have to rely on public taps. Even in Nongrah, long queues in front of locality taps are a regular sight. Jeeps and water trucks come to the locality in the morning.
“There were talks about the Nongrah Water Supply Scheme but till now there is no progress. If water supply improves then there won’t be much trouble for those who have to stand in line every morning,” says the resident.
Sohtun says if he has to hire a person to fetch water, then he has to pay at least Rs 80 a day, which is quite a pinch in the pocket. “So I prefer to carry water myself.”

Rainwater a saviour

There are many like Sohtun who do not have resources to buy water and have to find other ways to meet the gap. One way is storage of rainwater but that only provides a short-term relief.
Ahmed, for instance, stores rain water in a plastic tank and uses it for household purposes and in the toilet. He stays with his family in a rented house in Rilbong. Sohtun too stores rainwater “but that can be done only when it rains heavily”.
There are households in the city which store rainwater during monsoon but none follows an organised harvesting method.
The Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme at Mawphlang, which is the only source of water for the entire Shillong city, is yet to be completed even after a decade. Phase I of the project was sanctioned way back in 1979 to cater to the areas under Shillong Municipal Board, Cantonment Board, Mawlai and Nongthymmai.
To ease the problem in the urban localities, the state government is planning to make rainwater harvesting mandatory. “The amended (MUDA) Building Bylaws 2019 will include rainwater harvesting provision. Every household and buildings with separate tanks will have to put in place rainwater arresters. The Cabinet memorandum in this regard is ready and it will meet soon to decide on the matter,” says DP Wahlang, principal secretary in charge of Urban and Municipal Affairs.
Away from the city in Sohra, which is considered a wet desert, water crisis is at its peak in winter. Despite the heavy rainfall in this part of the state, no household has proper rainwater harvesting mechanism.
Greenland Shati, who lives near Cherrapunji market, says there is a community tank from where she gets water in the morning. “However, in winter I have to carry water from a nearby source or buy at a cost of Rs 500/1,000 litres. For washing clothes, we have to walk 2-3km to the nearest stream. Many adjacent localities and villages like Laitryngew, Sohra Rim and Mawmihthied face similar problems,” she adds.
AS Mukhim, the BDO of Shella-Bholaganj, points out that water retention capacity of the soil in Sohra is low because of its typical topography and even if rainwater harvesting is taken up, it will be an expensive affair for an individual as a special mechanism has to be put in place.
“But the government has taken steps to mitigate the crisis and constructed check dams in many places, like Lairyngkew. Some concrete water tanks have been constructed in many villages under the MGNREGA scheme,” says Mukhim.
The BDO informs that there is a plan to join hands with Indian Council of Agricultural Research to rope in experts and find a way to store and supply drinkable water. He hopes that work will start this year.
In Laitryngew, a concrete tank built under the MGNREG scheme in 2014 meets the need of villagers. But in absence of pipelines, villagers have to come down to the tank to fetch water.

What will hold water?

The crisis in the city and other parts of the hill state is not new and the authorities concerned have been aware of it. In 2014, the Meghalaya Water Foundation had organised ‘The Shillong Water Conclave: Water Equity and Sustainability in the Context of North East India’.
The conclave deliberated on the crisis in the northeastern region, including Shillong, caused by the global phenomenon of climate change and also sought to find solutions to the problem.
According to Phrang Roy, chairman of the Meghalaya Water Foundation, it was suggested during the conclave that the state government adopt a water policy. “It was also proposed that 17 villages located around Mawphlang be adopted so that the forests can be conserved and water sources protected,” he adds.
The conclave had also emphasised on rejuvenating the springs feeding Shillong city.
The state government is working on springshed rejuvenation and has decided to plant 1 million saplings at 306 springshed catchments in the state on June 5. Protection of vulnerable catchments in Shillong and Tura is also in the pipeline.
While suggestions and proposals are on the table, it is to be seen whether the government addresses the problem in time because so far, none of its projects has met deadlines. There is a need for authorities concerned to step up and fast-track the proposed projects. Till then, residents can continue struggling and pray that their wait this time does not get longer.

~ Team Sunday Shillong

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