Saving The Rivers of Meghalaya

By H H Mohrmen

It is for the first time in living memory that the monsoon is playing truant in Meghalaya and the north eastern region. Even though we have almost crossed the half year mark for this year, the rain is still avoiding its landing on these rolling hills. If the dry spell continues, then, like Umiam Lake, all the rivers in the state will become thin and muddy, and only the skeletal remains of their former image will remain. With temperatures continuing to rise, the water level will fall, leaving the rivers with very shallow waters. The rivers in the entire state are now showing this sign of stress, and if the rain god is not kind to the people, then the river beds of many rivers in the state will soon be visible to the naked eye. The question that arises is: what will happen to the aquatic life in these rivers? The most important question is: what will happen to our rivers, which are already under great stress?

The condition of
our rivers
The CEO of the Jowai Municipal Board and the Member Secretary of the Khasi Hills Building Structure Regulatory Authority, Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, Shillong, respectively, both issued public notices that shed light on the state of our rivers. These notices, which appeared in The Shillong Times, serve as a grim reminder that, in addition to the Wah Umkhrah in Shillong, other rivers in the state are also in danger. The two public notifications that were the result of the court or tribunal orders showed that the state’s rivers are not in good shape, and the Meghalaya government and the autonomous district councils should collaborate to save the rivers before it is too late.

The filthy-flowing
river Myntdu
A serious issue is raised by the notice issued by the Additional Deputy Commissioner of the West Jaintia Hills District and the Chief Executive Officer of the Jowai Municipal Board on May 3, ordering households in Jowai without proper septic tanks to stop flushing their toilets into drains and water bodies in their areas. The order states that, as per the report prepared by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, the National Green Tribunal has found that the health of the river Myntdu is seriously compromised due to its high acid content.
Human interference is causing the river to deteriorate, and excessive siltation is causing to reduce in size. It was also said that people indulge in open defecation, as a result of which the faecal coliform and total coliform counts are very high and the BOD level is beyond the permissible limit. Water is also not potable due to the disposal of untreated waste and sewage into the river. The term “BOD” refers to the amount of molecular oxygen needed for the biological oxidation of organic matter in water as well as the typical oxygen requirement for organic waste that can be broken down aerobically. Therefore, in compliance with the Honble NGT order, the Jowai Municipal Board has directed the households without a proper sanitary latrine under Jowai town to stop the direct discharge of faulty septic tanks or latrine to drains and water bodies and to construct a proper septage tank or sanitary latrine within 90 days.

The people of Jowai are literally drinking their own waste
The residents of the town are unaware of the fact that, despite the completion of the new water supply project, Jowai continues to rely on the Myntdu, which is unfit for human consumption, for its daily water needs. The grand old Myntdu water supply project, which is pumped from Mupiah, supplies the town with 4.086 MLD of water (RTI reply No. EE/PHE/Elect/JWI/Estt. 21/2022-23/1075 dated December 23, 2022). The much-hyped and recently inaugurated Umngot water supply, on the other hand, supplies only 1.486 MLD of water to the town, which is less than the total amount of water supplied to the town (Ibid. RTI dated December 23, 2022). The Myntdu water supply project continues to be the main source of water for the people of Jowai, as it supplies more than fifty percent of the town’s water requirement.
The question that the people of Jowai need to reflect upon is how they have treated the river Myntdu, the town’s main source of water supply. Another query is whether the PHE department is aware that as per MSPB report, the water it provides to the municipality is unfit for human consumption? The important point is how the department continues to provide water to the community despite their knowledge that it is unfit for human consumption. The government has obviously failed the people of Jowai, and this matter should be taken seriously by the people consuming this water and by the government of the day.

The KHADC Notice
On the other hand, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, in its notice dated May 10, 2023, cited the High Court of Meghalaya order in PIL No. 10 of 2019, which prohibited any construction of a permanent nature within 50 metres from the mean high flood level of Umiam Lake in Ri Bhoi District. The order further stated that the matter is no longer limited to Umiam Lake but has extended to other water bodies and rivers in the state. Additionally, it was reported that the Meghalaya High Court has ordered the Autonomous District Council to take action to maintain the water bodies’ purity.
In executing the High Court’s order, the Executive Committee of the KHADC has prohibited any new construction of a permanent nature within 50 (fifty) metres from the mean high flood level of all the water bodies and rivers in the jurisdiction of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. Further, the EC has directed that no person or persons shall discharge solid waste, sewage, or septic tank waste into the water bodies or rivers within the jurisdiction of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. It also orders the chiefs and the headmen, after due consultation with the landowner(s), to identify, protect, and preserve the catchment areas in the elekas and villages to ensure the sources of water are protected and preserved. The traditional chiefs are also instructed to ensure that the directions are not violated.

The river affected
by AMD
The rivers in the coal mine areas are highly polluted by acid mine drainage (AMD) that comes from the mines. In spite of the fact that no study has been done to determine the condition of the rivers in the coal mine areas post-NGT ban, the government has celebrated the issuing of mining leases to the coal miners in the state. It is indeed sad that while the government is crying foul over the pollution of the rivers in Shillong, it doesn’t care a hoot about the rivers in the rest of the state. Whether the new so-called “scientific mining” would not have an adverse impact on the rivers in the state is another question. If the new mining system continues to pollute the water bodies, then this government is closing the leakage of one hole and, in the process, opening a new hole.

Saving the rivers, saving water, and saving
aquatic lives
It is sad that, to date, the state has not been able to even come up with a People’s Aquatic Biodiversity Register of the aquatic animals that are found in the rivers in the state. Without a doubt, aquatic life in the rivers in the coal mines has been gone forever, but the administration is completely ignorant about the existence of aquatic life in the other rivers in the state. Despite the fact that in most of the rivers one can see the golden masher “kha-lad” (Tor putuitora) and chocolate mahseer “kha-saw” (Neolissocheilus hexagonolepis) swimming, not much is known about these fish species. Even though the IUCN has listed the golden mahseer (Tor putitora) as “endangered” and its population is declining at an alarming rate, the government has done nothing to protect this aquatic species. Chocolate mahseer (Neolissochilus hexagonolepis) is found only in the North Eastern Himalayan region, particularly in Meghalaya, and the fish is also considered a threatened species by the IUCN (2016).

Saving our rivers
before it is too late
It is now obvious that it is not only the Wah Umkhrah that needs the government’s attention; all the rivers in the state are under stress and need protection. The court and tribunal’s intervention should be taken as an alarm bell by the government and the people of the state. The government, along with the Autonomous District Council, should wake up and take immediate action to protect and preserve our rivers before it is too late.

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