K L Tariang

      As in other parts of the world, the thirst for water is likely to become one of the most pressing issues in Meghalaya in the coming decades as   water consumption will continue to grow rapidly with more demand for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses.  Presently, a significant percentage of the State population is already experiencing “water stress.”

      Water is a finite resource and vulnerable to loss and depletion though it is also renewable. It is not always available perennially and is also not available everywhere.  While Meghalaya is endowed with high intensity and long duration rainfall and with plenty of natural water resources, however, there is no   major improvement in the way water is protected, conserved, allocated and used. Moreover, many water resources are already adversely affected by detrimental human interferences. Consequently, the protection, efficient utilization and proper management of water resources are the core issue in the State and not so much of water availability.

 The quantity and quality of water resources in the State depends much on how the   catchments of these resources are treated.  However, the   catchments of many river and streams in the state are deteriorating   due to deforestation, faulty and intensive agriculture, mining and quarrying. These further   deteriorate the water resources thereby affecting their beneficial natural role   and    have also caused siltation of important water reservoirs which affect their life span. The Umiam reservoir, which is the major  source of power supply in Meghalaya, the reservoir of the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme (GSWSS)  and   many  water reservoirs meant for drinking and  irrigation purpose   are   already affected  by   high siltation rate and by progressive  contamination. Apparently, there is not much  focus  for the  upkeep and protection  of  the  natural watersheds and catchments  to assure safe and sustained   water supplies  though huge financial  expenditures  have  been incurred   for  building expensive dams for impounding  water, for  filtration plants and  for distribution  works  .On the other hand , proper catchments protection will not only assure bountiful supply of pure water  but also enhance recreation, wildlife and other ecological benefits .

      It may not be possible always to have an integrated approach for the protection of   many catchments or to use the land within according to its capability due to the complex land tenure system especially in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills Districts. Nevertheless, it may be necessary to declare certain areas within important catchments as “Critical Areas” and Government may take steps to own such areas and bring them under protective measures. This will certainly pay dividends in the long run. The streams from within the Laitkor Protected Forests are  the sources of drinking water to many Shillong  localities nearby till date  because of the farsightedness to bring the areas around the sources of  these streams under government protection  and converting  them  into forest land  during   the British rule.

    Some rivers with their tributaries in the State are affected by settlements which extended up to their banks.  Due to poor waste treatment facilities, pollutants from the settlements find their way into these rivers which are also used as dumping grounds. These rivers, which are supposed to be lifelines and could be sources of water for drinking and domestic uses and even for irrigation, are now deadweights instead. There have been voluntary initiatives to clean the rivers and other water bodies around settlements albeit lately though without the continued desirable impact. Schemes and projects for reclamation of the much affected Umkhrah River which is well within the state capital itself have been brought forward though hurdles for their implementation would be tremendous if feasible at all. Evacuating well dug in settlers from its banks could be problematic too. Lessons are only to be learnt from this river to ensure that such settlements do not appear along the banks of many of the yet unaffected rivers without proper perspective plans and affirmative actions for lessening the undesirable effects.

     The adverse impact of coal mining on the water resources is greatly evident in the coal mining areas in the state and downstream. Mining is unscientific and careless and the highly toxic water runoff(acid mine drainage)  from the mining areas and coal storage dumps finds its way into the rivers and streams thereby destroying all forms of aquatic life while contaminating these  waters  as well  as rendering them unfit for all forms of  human uses. The present Meghalaya Government proposes to regulate coal mining to address environmental issues with particular reference to the protection of the water resources.  The move is appreciated but how effective is the monitoring process and how resolute will the authorities be in penalizing the defaulters is another question altogether. Alternatively   it would be worthwhile to  annually divert some percentage of the sizable revenue coal mining  brings to the state  towards  the establishment  of well planned protective or preventive measures in the coal belt areas  to safeguard the water resources  as regulations alone may  not be effective.

    The  deterioration of  many of our  water resources  and the threat to others  would require direction , innovation and strategies  for harnessing action for  the  reclamation of these resources   and  to  contain the  threat. For a start , a comprehensive survey of the  water resources available  in the State  is a must for identification, quantitative assessment of the availability and potential of these  water resources and  of the  damage that have been inflicted  on them. The respective State government departments which deal with water related activities have their own respective tasks cut out  and their    functions are limited to  such tasks only. However, by virtue of its name, the State  Water Resources  Department  perhaps  would be better  defined not only to carry out the comprehensive  survey but to play a  pivotal role   in   the whole gamut of water resources protection  and conservation  initiatives and efforts much more  than its present  role in  the implementation of   irrigation projects. Public awareness and encouraging   people‘s participation   are however pre-requisites for successful results.

       Though Meghalaya receives very high rainfall annually, yet many areas in the state face acute shortage of water during the dry seasons. It is necessary therefore to encourage water harvesting by capturing rainfall runoff from rooftops, from local catchments and from seasonal floodwaters from local streams. Community-based water harvesting through micro level storage structures not only provide solution to curb various ills in resource-degraded regions but also brings about cohesiveness in the society for focusing on issues that go far beyond water.

     The conventional notion where water is regarded as a free commodity to be   squandered at will needs to change. It will be necessary, therefore, to motivate people and make endeavors to effect a mind-shift towards proper utilization and conservation of water. For this, there is a need for social mobilization and an enabling environment for water management. This would also mean   decentralization with more community empowerment where local institutions have a vital role to bring this up.

The water resources of Meghalaya deserve attention. Hydrological and natural advantage on one hand and insufficiency, unavailability and deterioration of water on the other for lack of proper attention should not co-exist. Conversely, the social, economical and environmental health of Meghalaya will also depend much on   the protection, efficient utilization and proper management of this vital natural resource.

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