Water scarcity is a new problem for the people of Tamenglong, a rainforest region in West Manipur, Northeast India. The entire hill region receives rainfall above 2000 mm from April to October, according to the National Informatics Centre (NIC) Report 2020. Despite the heavy rainfall received almost throughout the year, which causes massive landslide on highways and even in residential areas every year during monsoon, the district has been facing water scarcity in recent years. Water scarcity problem is more acute in the district headquarters (town area), where the population is concentrated and urbanisation is expanding by the year.
Situated about 145 km away from the state capital Imphal, the rainiest hill station of Manipur located at 1260 metres altitude above sea level had not witnessed the dry situation a few decades ago. With an area of 4,391 sq km, it has a total population of 1.71 lakhs (2011 Census).
Interacting with this reporter, a resident of Merrylane, Tamenglong Ward No. 9 Rk Ringo recalled: “There weren’t any instances of water scarcity in Tamenglong in the 1970s and even in the early 80s. Every community has their own fresh water source in the form of small ponds called dwuikhun in local dialect or streams from where safe and sweet drinking water could be fetched”.
Till about late 70s, the locals or villagers comprising mainly Rongmei, Liangmai, Zemei and Puimei Naga tribes depended on natural resources for daily utilities. Both young and old womenfolk were seen carrying hamper baskets stacked with bundles of bamboo tubes called ‘dwuikhu’ as water containers. Although the ponds are quite far from their residential areas, the water was sufficient for the year-long community needs.
“It was a beautiful sight to see local girls in their traditional sarong going out in groups early morning to fetch water from the local ponds,” Ringo said.
There used to be a luxuriant growth of vegetation above the catchment areas of the ponds. In the past decades and even in the early 80s, Tamenglong district Headquarters was covered with a beautiful canopy of green vegetation.
A resident of Utopia Ward at Tamenglong HQs, one AK Ahiam said: “If I needed a pole of wood I just had to walk some 20 metres to get it. But now I have to travel one or two kilometre for the same material,” he lamented.
Sharing a similar experience, a teacher of United Builders School at Tamenglong, Abuan Riamei recalled: “When we were students, we used to walk on foot from Merrylane (Ward No. 9) to Tamenglong HQ to go to Tamenglong Higher Secondary School. We used to pass through many thick jungles. Squirrels used to sprint across the road in front of our eyes, the sights of green pigeon’s nests were common, and we could hear the songs of all types of birds on the way to our school. But now this same road has changed its feature”.
Other students of those days had the scary experience of hearing the tiger roar in the nearby forest. The howling of foxes every night was a common experience. During those days, there were not any report of water scarcity in Tamenglong.
In the 1980s, the Hill Station (which is located around 150 km west of Imphal) began to witness some changes in the name of development. Township was expanded; construction of roads and structures, levelling of hillocks and mountains for office plots and other infrastructures began to take place.
Moreover, more and more villagers started to migrate to the town in search of wages and employment. Still, others came to reside in the town for their children’s education. Most of them are poor families who are compelled to migrate because of their trade and profession and other livelihood purposes. Their need for fuel and building materials has caused them to cut trees and bamboos from the nearest forests. Tamenglong with hilly terrain and rich biodiversity is known for thick vegetation of bamboo plants.
The town expansion began from the bazaar area and then towards the western sides. This has ugly impacts on the forest cover. Increasing forest areas are being cleared for the purpose of housing and other constructions. The number of villagers who moved to the town doubled and even tripled in the 1990s. Even then the groundwater level was still high at many places wherever a well was dug.
“I dug up a couple of feet deep well at the back of my house. In the morning I was so joyful to see a foot deep water collected in my new pond,” one 54-year-old Irene Pamei from Utopia, Tamenglong Ward No. 1, said.
When the damage was done
Since the mid-1990s, the water sources have dried up to a great extent. More forest cover has been reduced by random cutting down of trees by the villagers and expansion of urbanisation. The size of the catchment area has been drastically reduced. As a result, many sites where it supported springs and fountains have now disappeared. Some rivulets and streams have disappeared. Many fountains that once spouted fresh water are not to be seen anymore today.
In addition to the impact of increasing population, another factor that devastated the forest covers of Tamenglong is the setting up of developmental projects. Many areas are cleared for new office buildings, waiting sheds, playgrounds, and for introducing new types of plants in the district. In reality, many of these projects have failed or are abandoned after some time. But the damage is already done.
A weather observer, one private school teacher John (name changed) spoke about the climate warming up story in Tamenglong: “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the highest temperature recorded in Tamenglong town was 29-30 degree Celsius. But by the year 2005 and the following years, the weather temperature shot up to 34 degree Celsius during peak summer. A rise of about four degrees above the season’s average in a decade time means that the effect of global climate change has affected us while we also become a contributor to it.”
John said that this rise in temperature has not only affected the availability of water, but also the wellness of wildlife – the health of rare and exotic flora and fauna in the region. For example, the north-western part of the present Lower Ground near Apollo Bazar which was one of the wettest places was once infested with toads, green frogs and dragonflies. But the same is no more seen today. Today, many areas also bear similar scenes owing to the change in the climate and seasonal weather conditions.
During the dry season, by February-March, the citizens of Tamenglong will be further tormented by this acute water shortage. It is December now, but local women are already queuing up with their pails and pots to fetch water at the so-called public water pipe to get their share. It may be mentioned that water tap connection is yet to reach the place. There is no running water supply in households yet. Many households have their own water tanks and store water from tank water supply which are bought. However, majority of the population are poor and cannot afford to buy water.
The water tanks constructed with the funds from the government are also drying up simply because of the disappearance of forest cover at catchment areas. Some wards in the town have diverted their MGNREGS funds to construct water tanks and reservoirs. Again, they are not successful for the same reason.
A resident of Lower Merrylane, one Lungkianliu commented, “Tamenglong which is one of the rainiest place in India, next only to Cherrapunji in Meghalaya state of Northeast is now poised to face the scourge of water scarcity for the next four or more dry months.”
Reports from many Wards of Tamenglong HQ and from C Centre, Chabgan and Merrylane say that since November many of their ponds hold no more water. The hardships they are now facing will continue till the next monsoon or rainfall, probably during March-April 2021.
One 40-year-old woman from Upper Merrylane Gaichunreiliu said, “We have started venturing far into the forest for a pail of water. We are unable to buy bricks and cement to construct a water reservoir. Neither can we afford to own a ‘tullu’ (electric water pump) to channel water into our house as we are situated atop the hill. We are likely to face severe hardships in the month of January and February until the next rainfall in March.”
Women in many localities get into a hot tussle to get some water from their dying ponds. It may be mentioned that womenfolk of the community carry out most of the household chores and it is the women who fetch water for the use of the family. And most of the households have big families.
The problem of water scarcity is most acute in Tamenglong Main Bazar area. The localities of Chingkhiulong in the heart of the town do not have ponds in their neighbourhood. They have to depend on the supply from the pipelines, or walk a long distance to the next neighbourhood for a pot of water.
A 55-year-old resident of Chingkhiuluang, Khamguang said, “Fetching water from other neighbourhood often draw the ire of the owner of the pond. The pond or tank will be locked up the next day. I am a government employee and so can afford to buy at least 1000 litres for a week’s use. But what is there for these small vegetable vendors who have come from villages and are living in rented houses?” Another businessman from JD Bazar Abuana said, “There are some pipelines laid by the Water Supply Department in our street. But how does it help when it supplies water only twice a week for about 15 minutes each time?”
The denizens residing at the western side of the town also have shared the same disappointing stories. Only those who live nearby the stream and rivulets or besides the remnant of forest managed to thrive on with a pot full of water from their country ponds.
Water Supply Projects under Construction in Tamenglong
When the Executive Engineer of Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), Tamenglong Ajin Thaimei was approached, he informed that presently there are two important water supply projects under construction. The first is the “Gadai Water Supply by Conservation at Tamenglong” which is being taken up at Joulen site of Gadai Mountain under the PHED. Another one is the “Water Supply by Conservation at Tamenglong'' under the Non-Laxable Central Pool Resources (NLCPR) which is financed by the Union Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER), taken up at Hangoipat-Duithanlong area.
Apart from the above projects, there are existing water supply sources at Duigailong village (Where the district hospital is situated) and another source at Zeiland Pond near the Electricity Department office.
“When these projects under construction are completed, every household will be supplied water through tap connection. Efforts to develop the existing spring sources at various locations are also being taken up,” the executive engineer added.
The biggest challenge to all in Tamenglong
The greatest challenge faced by the Water (supply) Department and the common people alike is the problem posed by the encroachers at Gadai Mountain in the outskirt of the town. The executive engineer further stated that about 34 hectares of the catchment area at Gadai Mountain is now encroached by unauthorized locals. As such, the PHED and the Forest Department along with the District Administration are taking up measures to address this serious concern.
It is high time for all the citizens of this hill district, Tamenglong, to join hands with the District Administration, the PHED, the Forest Department, and the media fraternity to restart a robust campaign for saving the forest and sustain this ‘el agua es vida’ (water is life) for the survival of the next generations. The District Administration should encourage the use of the technique of Rain Water Harvesting, and opt for aggressive afforestation activities within the town areas while subsidizing the price of LPG and electricity bills for the people of this beautiful district to lounge back into the ‘carbon negative’ status quo of the last decades.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own. This article is written under the Directorate of Environment sponsored 2nd State Level Media Fellowship on Climate Change Reporting)