Manipur faced a deficit monsoon during 2022 as a result it is facing acute water scarcity now. Quite a few water supply units have not been able to supply water due to lack of water at the intake point with almost all rivers and streams running across the Imphal valley devoid of water. Even with normal monsoon there is scarcity of water during the lean season in the past few years and thus it has become a perennial problem. Water scarcity is not only in the Imphal valley, it is all the more problematic in the hill areas.
Our political leaders had harped on this problem linking it with the destruction of forest for poppy plantation, which no doubt is a major contributing factor. But the issue is much larger and cannot be ascribed to only one aspect.
Cutting of forest for jhum and poppy plantation impacts the environment, allowing top soil erosion, etc but threatening to stop all forest fires is not justified, especially for jhum which has been in practice for centuries and is a lifestyle of our tribal brethren. Jhum cultivation is the mainstay of agriculture in our hill areas.
The danger is in the short cycle of five or six years. When the cycle was thirty or forty years, in fact it provided positive results. Yes, uncontrolled fire needs to be stopped and burning at jhum land is controlled by the villagers. Ideas have been put forward for terracing but terracing cannot be applied to all hills as it require certain conducive factors like slope degree, rainfall, etc and terracing at every hill will be counterproductive and will be money down the drain as seen in the implementation of the Central scheme of Control of Shifting Cultivation.
The tendency to point fingers about the water scarcity to our tribal brethren is short sighted to say the least. In nature there are always linkages and without understanding the linkages, it would be futile to prescribe interventions. Protecting forests is one major factor but water scarcity in the valley is caused by the greed of humans in the valley which had destroyed the water bodies, converting these into farmlands or even residential areas. In nature, surplus water during the monsoon is stored in the wetlands.
As per a conference paper read in 2014, there were 155 wetlands of the size greater than 2.25 ha, covering an estimated area of 52,959 ha, which is 2.37 per centof the total geographical area of the state, of which Loktak lake with an area of 24672 ha is the largest. As per the website of the Directorate of Environment and Climate Change now there are 19 major wetlands but the most worrying part is the reduction in the size of these wetlands. Except for Loktak which is protected by a law which maintains an area of 24672 ha, most others are found to have been reduced in area.
Fortunately Pumlen/Khoidum/Lamjao also continues to have an area of 8022 ha, but Ikop/Kharung had reduced from 6520 ha to 4763 ha; Loushi from 1864 ha to 1135 ha; Waithou/Phumnom from 465 ha to 108 ha; Sanapat from 282 ha to 117 ha; Aonbikhongpat from 225 ha to 55 ha; Uttrapat from 185 ha to 86 ha, etc. In fact Poiroupat which earlier had an area of 810 ha is no longer a wetland with almost the entire area converted to farmland, except for pockets. Thus the drastic reduction of the area of these wetlands is bound to impact on the overall water availability and this is what we are now seeing.
Loktak was literally saved by the Ithai Barrage and if this was not constructed it would now have been a small water body with the periphery now converted to farmlands and even residential areas. The claim of the flooding of say about 60,000 ha of farmland around Loktak by the barrage was a pointer to the greed of the people in destroying the lake.
Most of the wetlands have been encroached upon by humans converting them into farmlands while another issue is the reduction in the water holding capacity of all wetlands due to siltation. As mentioned Poiroupat, which was once famed for lotus seeds and tubers, no longer exists as a wetland, except for pockets. Thus, blaming only the hill people for the water scarcity is unjustified and we irrespective of where we reside are equally culpable of the problem.
Imphal was once circled by a number of wetlands but now these are no longer wetlands. Except for Lamphelpat, which is being partly restored as a wetland, all others have vanished. Porompat, Akampat, Keishampat, Sangaipat, etc are now all either institutional or residential areas and they are wetland only in name. Going a bit away from the centre of the city almost all wetlands have vanished and been converted into farmlands. The destruction of the water bodies resulted in change in the micro climate of the region leading to increased temperature and the temperature rise in the valley is also contributed by the disappearance of the water bodies.
Now coming to the rivers and streams, due to heavy siltation the bed of the rivers have gone up drastically thereby reducing the water carrying capacity as a result after a shower, there is overflow or breach of the banks and to stop it, the banks are raised resulting in the rivers flowing almost overhead. The intimate relation between the rivers and the water bodies has been interfered with and the flow of water from rivers to the water bodies and vice versa was disturbed. This resulted in people encroaching upon the water bodies and this will continue.
The steps taken up to restore part of the Lamphelpat, Waithoupat and a few other water bodies are in the right direction. Other remaining water bodies also need intervention despite opposition by locals who are concerned that their livelihood is likely to be impacted.
Government need to engage with the locals and proper measures are taken to ensure that all stakeholders are benefited by the restoration of the water bodies. All encroachers who had built structures must be thrown out and the water body restored to its original glory and the locals must be benefitted from fishes, edible water plants, tourism, etc. The locals must also be encouraged to ensure the survival of these water bodies and destructive fishing and harvesting must be stopped and sustainable approaches need to be adopted in harvesting. The time for free for all is over and there should be regulations to ensure the survival of the water bodies and the people.
We are in for a tough time in the coming months due to acute water scarcity and this will not be a one-time event but will be a continuing feature in the years to come. There is a report that water from Thoubal Dam has reached the site at Chingkhuching but earlier it had also reached but due to technical faults was further delayed which now it seems to have been plugged. The question is how will the raw water from Thoubal dam be linked to the various water treatment plants and it is hoped that work was undertaken simultaneously so that raw water shortage is minimised.
In such a situation farmers were exhorted not to allow fields to remain fallow during the Rabi season. A reasonable proposition but from where will the irrigation water come from? Without irrigation, it is impossible to grow crops during the Rabi season. Most of the crops require a minimum of two/three irrigations without which there will be any harvest.
When drinking water is not available from where will the irrigation water come from? Thus all the exhortations will fall upon deaf ears and will remain as sound bytes and nothing more. Steps to provide irrigation water during the lean season must be properly planned before farmers are requested to do the farming during the lean season.
The problem of water scarcity is not solely due to the destruction of the forest in the hills which is a major factor. The destruction of water bodies is also a major contributing factor. The destruction of forests causes water scarcity not only in the valley but in the hills also, which have been facing perennial water scarcity for many decades. Many perennial streams have now become seasonal leading to water scarcity during the lean season. We need to understand and appreciate the complex inter-relationships between the various parts of nature and also realise that man is just a cog in the huge canvass of nature and interventions without understanding the complex nature will only lead to disaster.
(The views expressed are personal)