Thursday, July 25, 2024

Meghalaya’s Rivers in Distress


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By H H Mohrmen

The dumping of garbage and the disposal of liquid waste into rivers in the state, especially those in or near urban areas, has polluted these rivers to the extent that reclamation is beyond possibility. Additionally, the construction of houses near or on the banks of rivers has made reclamation almost impossible. On the other hand, the rivers in the coal mining areas have died long ago, often unnoticed.
The rivers in Jaiñtia Hills, in particular, and those in Meghalaya, in general, are in very bad shape. In most cases, the river waters are no longer fit for human consumption. Some rivers, like the upstream of the river Myntdu, are affected by pollution from human waste, which includes both solid and liquid waste. Meanwhile, other rivers in the district have become dead rivers due to acid mine drainage caused by coal mining.
Land of Dead Rivers
In 2007, I wrote an article for Eastern Panorama, a city magazine titled “Jaintia Hills: The Land of the Dead Rivers,” which surprised many readers. The article responded to news reports that, for the first time, thousands of dead fish floated on the river when Lukha turned blue. This incident shocked the state because such occurrences had not been reported before. The article also mentioned a similar incident from a decade ago that received little publicity.
In a similar incident, hundreds and thousands of fish died along the downstream of the river Myntdu, putting an end to all aquatic life in this river. In the mid-90s, during one of my pastoral visits to Nongtalang, I met a relative who had moved to a village near the river Myntdu. The relative, who lived in the Kharkhana area, told us about the mass death of fish along the river Prang (Myntdu river is called Prang in this area), which went unreported. This incident went unnoticed because it happened in remote areas along the river Myntdu from the Raij Tuber region down to its exit into Bangladesh.
Since then, the downstream Myntdu has become barren, a river devoid of aquatic life. However, Myntdu and Lukha are not the only rivers affected by mining. The same story applies to Kupli, where acid mine drainage has killed aquatic life and corroded the machinery used in the hydroelectric power plant. A few years back, electricity production from the Kupli Hydro Electric Project (KHEP) was stopped because the machines had to be repaired due to premature corrosion caused by acid mine drainage (AMD) from the coal mine areas in Meghalaya. This is the condition of the rivers which originated or flow from the coal mining areas.
Rivers in Urban Areas
The rivers in coal mine areas are not the only ones dying; the rivers in the urban areas of the state also face similar problems, albeit from pollution. For example, Wah Umkhrah in Shillong, river Myntdu in Jowai, and possibly other rivers near towns and cities are heavily polluted. Despite much being written about Wah Umkhrah, there is no visible impact on the river. Unfortunately, the government is not even learning a lesson from what is happening to Wah Umkhrah.
Government Intervention
Despite numerous government interventions, including enacting acts and implementing policies, pollution of the state’s rivers continues unabated. The government introduced the Meghalaya Protection of Catchment Area Act, 1990, which received the governor’s assent on April 27, 1992. However, the question remains whether the Act has been implemented in letter and spirit. The act provides for the creation of the Meghalaya Catchment Area Advisory Board, but it is unclear if the government has constituted this body. Similarly, the government introduced the State Water Policy in 2019, which envisages the creation of the Meghalaya State Water Resource Council under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister. However, the public is unaware if the Council is functioning. Have the Act and Policy had any impact on the rivers and water bodies in the state? Or are these policy documents like toothless tigers—good on paper only and good for nothing?
Role of the ADCs
The role of the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) is interesting. According to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, the ADCs are mandated to make laws regarding rivers. However, the Councils have not made any laws to protect or preserve the rivers. The public is unaware if any of the three ADCs have made any laws to protect and conserve the rivers in their respective districts. In Jaintia Hills, the ADC is known only for leasing rivers to bidders for fishing, without taking any measures to protect them. The Council also leases rivers to private individuals for sand collection but does nothing to protect the rivers under its jurisdiction.
Civil Society Intervention
When government agencies fail, civil societies step forward to try to save the rivers and water, which is crucial for human life. In Jaintia Hills, organizations like the Jaintia Fishing and Environment Association, formerly known as the Jaintia Fishing Association, have led efforts to protect the rivers. This award-winning organization of anglers has had a significant impact on the entire district. In Jowai, along the river Myntdu, it has constructed check dams and established the Syntu Ksiar section of the river Myntdu as a fish sanctuary. The organization has also helped other villages engage in activities to conserve fish and protect rivers. The question is how much can a civil society group do?
The Operation Clean-Up
In Shillong, a group of concerned citizens organize regular cleaning drives to clean sections of the Wah Umkhrah called Umkaliar. The group, which has consistently organized the cleaning drive, recently met with the Chief Minister to inform him about their efforts to protect and preserve the upstream section of Wah Umkhrah. They also urged the government to implement robust plans to protect the environment and ban single-use plastics in the state. It remains to be seen if the Chief Minister will heed their call, but the group has made an impact.
The Green-Tech Foundation
Similarly, Green Tech Foundation is another organization engaged in cleaning rivers. This group of young people, which is only a few years old, has organized cleaning drives in the West Khasi Hills District and other parts of the state. They have cleaned many rivers in various parts of the Khasi region of the state. On the bright side is the fact that this group under the leadership of H. Nonglang has units in different parts of the Khasi Jaintia regions of the state and has extended its operation in the Garo hills too.
Ka Khuid Ya Ka Wah Myntdu
In Jowai, another group, not seeing themselves as an organization but rather as a platform called Ka Khuid Ya Ka Wah Myntdu, is continuing the work of the Jaintia Fishing and Environment Society to protect river Myntdu. This group, under the leadership of Khroo Lamsalanki Pariat, has taken on several influential contractors in the state to protest the mistreatment of river Myntdu. After the PWD initiated road construction along the river Myntdu near Jowai, the forum protested the rampant environmental destruction and pollution caused by the construction.
The construction of the road has even damaged many of the paddy fields on the upper valley of the river, and the forum is collaborating with the farmers to protest against this destruction. The advantage for the people of Jowai is that they have witnessed what happened to Wah Umkhrah in Shillong, and they do not want this to happen to the river Myntdu. The forum recently initiated a signature campaign and submitted a complaint against the destruction of the river and paddy fields along the river to the Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court, Shillong. A copy of the complaint was also sent to the Chairman of the National Green Tribunal.
Where Will the Buck Stop?
The condition of the rivers in the state is dire, and the future does not look promising. Due to the deteriorating condition of the rivers, civil society, including colleges are contributing to efforts to protect and preserve them. Shillong College recently organized a short film festival on the theme “Shattered Reflection: Meghalaya’s Rivers in Distress,” which was an apt theme for the competition held as part of the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Teaching Science. The budding filmmakers did a commendable job with their films, but the question is – is it enough? Films help create awareness among the public about the condition of the rivers, but the pertinent question remains: where does the buck stop?
The question remains: who will save our rivers from the impending danger? Are civil societies initiatives enough if the government is not making every effort to protect and preserve our rivers? What will be the future of the state if all its rivers become dead rivers which humans cannot use? Are these the kind of rivers we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren?


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