Sunday, June 23, 2024

A lesson not learnt


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By K.L. Tariang

The citizens of Shillong are continuing in their efforts to save Wah Umkhrah as evident in a recent article in this newspaper. This is natural, given the fact that the river passes through Shillong, the state capital. The condition of the river would reflect on our society ‘s attitude towards nature . Voices have been raised about this and deliberations are made in various forums lamenting on the present state of the river and the need to clean and revive it. Bur there is also an exasperation because of lack of a defined authority to take care of this aspect. This leads to a confused and convoluted approach to the problem. A petition which rivets attention to this distress was filed recently with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) with the expectation that government would be jerked from its slumber as in the case of the rat hole mining in the state . While it is hoped that the NGT would give a favourable decision on the petition, one wonder as to what would be a focused and precise approach of the Government to the problem given its advanced complexity. Ideas would be forthcoming, no doubt, but even if these are appropriate and realistic, they will require sincere implementation efforts and peoples’ sustained involvement while not overlooking the substantial financial costs involved. Whatever may be the outcome, the case of the Wah Umkhrah is a typical manifestation of the lack of farsightedness to conserve our rivers and the seeming unconcern for their present deteriorating condition particularly by those who have governed us down the years and at present.

While it is ‘better late than never’ to focus attention on WahUmkhrah, we cannot overlook the fact that scores of our rivers are likewise adversely affected in recent years. Many of these rivers and streams are the sources of our drinking water, irrigation and recreation. In terms of their human benefits they far outweigh that of the Wah Umkhrah as it is now. The irony is that while huge investments are made in projects to draw water from these water sources, scant attention is given to the protection and conservation of their catchments which are exploited for human needs . Certainly such needs would take precedence over anything else but it is human greed which blinds us to the fact that if these sources are affected and we face water scarcity then we have to look for alternatives at a huge costs and that is, provided there are alternatives. A typical case in point is that of the Jowai Water Supply Scheme from the Myntdu river which earlier had sufficient water for the scheme possibly for perpetuity. But hardly thirty years from the time of its commissioning there is already the need to supplement its water from as far as the Umngot river at a huge costs. This could have been avoided had there been efforts to prevent severe desecration upstream of the river in the recent years. Similar would be the fate of some other water supply schemes. Incidentally ,Myntdu river has a high risk of going the Wah Umkrah way in a not too distant future and the Government is still in a slumber over this.

I have heard of new water sources being explored in the coal mining areas as the water of some of the existing water supply schemes is contaminated beyond use. Now even if the NGT ‘s intervention would lead to suitable and better coal mining practices that would have less negative effects on our rivers, it will take many decades and phenomenal costs to bring back these already contaminated rivers to their original pristine state. Otherwise it will be a colossal waste of natural water resources which is disadvantageous for the future generation. I wonder if there will be other sources of water in future in such areas even if there is money to spend for more. I also wonder as to what will be the fate of the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme four decades from now because of the unabated and unchecked onslaughts on its catchment with no clear direction on how to stem these. I will be not be there then but my children and grandchildren and their children after them will still be on this earth. I just hope and pray that water will still be available for them.

Water is precious and no one knows this better than those who lead or govern us. But they have shown no vision. The magnitude of degradation of water resources in the state which in turn can lead to water stress of unimaginable proportions in the future does not seem to have been seriously considered. In fact there is a lackadaisical approach to the protection and conservation of this vital natural resource.That the Meghalaya Protection of Catchment Areas Act 1990 was enacted lately after we got statehood and that it was poorly conceived right from the start by overlooking the primary concern which is the land tenure system without any thought to circumvent it shows the lack of seriousness of governments. That it took more than twenty years to discover its inefficacy (long after most of our forest and rivers have been destroyed) and that the proposed amendment is moving at a slow trot would all lend credence to this apathetic attitude. That the Act when amended is still to be tried and tested for its worth is another aspect to be concerned about .

So how do we protect our rivers especially those which we expect to be our source of water for perpetuity? We may apply the laws at hand to prevent malpractice in the catchments. However without constant follow up to ensure compliance this will be futile .There is also the risk of being overturned in the process particularly when human basic and genuine needs as well as rights are affected and when interventions are prejudices. It will therefore be a staggered and wavering process and not consistent in the long run. To expect public participation in most cases is also a far cry when many still have to struggle for existence and lack the sensitivities and consciousness about conserving nature. But government could acquire land in critical areas in the catchments and institute protective measures that will not only assure bountiful supply of pure water perpetually but also enhance recreation, wildlife and other ecological benefits. We may consider this to be out of reach in our context especially if funds are involved but if approached judiciously it could be possible. Had there been a foresight to acquire even twenty metres of land on both side of the Wah Umkhrah when there were signs of encroachment into its banks and if such land was brought under protected vegetative cover, the river would not be as it is now and it would have saved us all from this present predicament. In any case, Governments have been acquiring land down the years for many other purposes and when the investment is meant for the wholesome existence of its citizens for generations to come it would be more than worth it. Ideally, it would be a concentrated combination of all choices in specifically defined catchments for which the government need to immediately focus its attention on and act quickly.

Wah Umkhrah is a glaring example of a lesson learnt very late. For this we have to bear the responsibility of restoring the river to a condition decent enough to save us from the ignominy of being considered as a people unsympathetic towards nature and towards our future generation. Though there is still time to prevent our other rivers from suffering the same fate as Wah Umkhrah and while the Government cannot be complacent and has to act quickly on this, it is also up to us to be ever vigilant and sensitive to this matter.


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