Manipur is faced with an acute water crisis today. At least on one count, it is fortunate that this is not the rice paddy plantation season yet. If it were so, the crisis would have deepened and crop failure and the prospect of food scarcity for the next year would have loomed like the grim reaper in the horizon, especially for those below the poverty line, which is a growing section of our society today. Still, a depletion of water available for daily home use in the towns and villages is no trivial matter. It is supremely ironic that the state has several dam reservoirs but none of them is able to provide an answer to this problem. The only reservoir which was being used for the purpose successfully was the Singda Dam which supplied tap water to a greater part of Imphal city, but even here, the water level has sunken below extractable level for the last few months and this will obviously last until the arrival of monsoon. The story is not much different in the case of the Khuga Dam reservoir which was meant among others to supply piped water to Churachandpur, another major population centre of the state. The Dolaithabi dam and Mapithel/Thoubal dams too have not been able to address this problem although they were meant to when they were being conceived. If at all some of these dams, such as Mapithel/Thoubal dam and Khuga dam today serves some purpose, it is their touristic value, and in the case of Mapithel/Thoubal dam, a new culture of rearing fish in net cases, therefore harvestable at will is also taking birth. The fishes thus reared also have the taste and size of game fishes of big waters, therefore with good market value. Though these were not the main objectives of these dams, at least they a consolation.
The government is today talking of using the lift irrigation technology to make water from Loktak Lake reach Imphal. This is good news, except that the availability of this facility was never made public earlier, but we do hope this is true, though we cannot help doubting it. The altitude of Loktak Lake surface is the lowest point in the Imphal valley plateau and stands at 768 meters, thanks to the Ithai Dam which keeps this level constant to run the Loktak Hydro Electric Project. The altitude of Imphal on the other hand is 786 meters, therefore the difference is 18 meters or a little over 59 feet. This is also why water of all rivers that run into the Imphal valley ultimately drain into Loktak. Lifting water 59 feet with pumps should be easy, but we are here talking of very large volume of water. To use an analogy, it would be like making one of the rivers in the valley run upstream for about 50 kms. This too should not be impossible, provided the elaborate pumps system designed for the purpose is available. Probably it is available and in working condition, otherwise the government would not have said this feat would be executed to ensure water supply in Imphal. We do hope this happens, and should we should all be finding the truth out in the week or two ahead, that is, if the rain gods do not intervene and sends rain to resolve the problem before the state’s technological capability is tested. But even if government ends up not having to prove this capability this time, it is time for it to seriously think of perfecting such a system in anticipation of future water crises, given the fact that climate change is an undeniable reality now.
Times like this make you reflect on some very far-sighted administrative measures of a past era which are still proving to be the guarantor of comfort that there will at least be water to sustain life even in case of very delayed monsoon. The foremost example imaginable are the numerous public ponds and other artificial water bodies, the biggest and most prominent of which is the Ningthem Pukhri, dug during the reign of Churachand Maharaj. It is time to take lessons from such foresights of past leaders and for the present administration to also come up with visions to address not just these present problems, but also to leave them as legacies to be inherited by future generations. For instance, no administration worth the name can be left with no answer to degradation of the state’s river system or its natural wetlands etc. It is time to begin focussing administrative priorities to such areas majorly, for these will be what determines the shape of future of all in the state.
One area to begin preparing for this future challenge ought in the matter of ensuring the health of our river and wetland systems. The two of course are interrelated and interwoven, and also are directly or indirectly proportional to the health of our forests. In the Imphal area for instance, among the many wetlands that have either disappeared or else are in the process of doing so, two most prominent ones are Lamphel Pat and Porom Pat, and as they dry up, they are being reclaimed as government khas land to build government infrastructures. Among the many functions, other than just being an extra source of water, they also were reservoirs to absorb flood waters and the release them back into the river drainage systems slowly as the water inflows recede, thereby keeping human habitations and agricultural lands somewhat shielded from floods and draughts. Today, with this vital and natural regulatory mechanism gone, Imphal easily gets flooded or water logged during the monsoon seasons and not long after the flood waters recede, experience water shortage. Experts in the area will know better but probably well-designed artificial reservoirs which are deeper but less expansive at the places natural reservoirs once existed could be the answer.
Public awareness about the importance of river health is much more widespread, therefore the interrelatedness between forest health and richness of hillsides that serve as watersheds for Manipur’s many rivers too is very much in public cognizance. But the upkeep of the health of the forests in the hillsides, must now not be left only up to those who reside in these watershed areas. The administration must now think of administrative structures that ensure shared responsibility. Rivers sustain life and livelihoods of those at their sources, but equally those downstream in a virtuous chain. Just as their bounties are shared legacies of those at rivers’ starts as well as those at their ends, the responsibility for keeping them rejuvenated always must also be shared. One way of doing this could be, those in townships, in particular Imphal, where tap water supplied to homes come from these rivers, could be made to a pay a reasonable cess in their water taxes. For instance, if 1000 litres of tap waters is had at Rs. 150, they could be made to pay Rs. 155, and the Rs. 5 extra could go into welfare fund for villages upstream in the hills who follow guidelines of forest upkeep. This shared responsibility is not only fair, but also would undoubtedly strengthen bondage, much more than political slogans on hill-valley brotherhoods.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author