Less rain, empty promises: Cherrapunji, once wettest place, struggles with water woes

Rampant deforestation and a change in sea surface temperature have largely contributed to the slide in rainfall, according to some studies and environmentalists

Cherrapunji water problems
Sohra or Cherrapunji has been losing 27.15 mm of annual rainfall every year over the past 42 years, a study has found | iStock photo

One would have least expected drinking water scarcity to become an election issue in one of the wettest places on Earth.

Paradoxical as it may seem, that is the reality in Meghalaya’s Sohra — better known outside the state as Cherrapunji — which holds two world records, for receiving the highest rainfall in a calendar year and in a single month.

Over 25,000 voters of the constituency are desperately seeking a solution to their water woes.

A bucket of water carted from the nearby plains can cost anywhere between Rs 20 and Rs 50 depending on which time of the year it is bought, said Miatshaphrang Nongrum, a resident of Sohra’s Pomsohmen locality.


Election promises

It has been the scenario in Sohra for over a decade now, even as political parties of all hues pledge to mitigate the crisis during every election, Nongrum added.

Political parties are making similar promises this time, too, ahead of the February 27 assembly elections in Meghalaya.

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When Union Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated the much-awaited Greater Sohra Water Supply Scheme two years ago, Nongrum, like most residents of the place, thought there would finally be respite from the ordeal.

The Rs 24.08-crore project was supposed to provide water to Sohra town and 12 nearby areas by sourcing it from Lyngksiar and Law Sanlait spring sources.

But it meets the same fate, as most water supply schemes in the state have become non-functional or partially functional because of water sources drying up during the lean season or become too polluted due to runoff from coal mines.

Dip in rains

A recent study on the rainfall pattern in the Northeast found a decreasing trend at Sohra and nearby areas.

According to the Regional Meteorological Centre in Guwahati, Sohra receives an average annual rainfall of 11,430 mm, a far cry from the 22,987 mm it got between August 1880 and July 1881 and 2,455 mm of downpour it witnessed on a single day in 1974, earning it a place in Guinness World Records.

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It has been losing 27.15 mm of annual rainfall every year over the past 42 years, the study found.

The dip has already cost it the title of the wettest place, having lost the distinction to Mawsyrnam, located 15 km away as the crow flies.

Even Mawsyrnam is witnessing a decrease in rainfall.

Rampant deforestation and a change in sea-surface temperature largely contributed to the slide, according to some studies and environmentalists.

Why less rains

Changes in moisture transport from the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea in the pre-monsoon period is influencing the rainfall reduction in Cherrapunji, found the study conducted by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune.

Conversion of forestlands and vegetation cover to croplands is another factor cited by the researchers for the shift in rainfall.

“There has been rampant cutting of trees without any sustainable afforestation intervention. Though government-sponsored plantation ceremonies are held regularly with much funfare, the enthusiasm dies out by the end of the day as do the newly planted saplings for the want of care,” pointed out Bremley Lyngdoh, a Meghalaya-based environmental economist and founder of Worldview Impact Foundation, a non-profit working on mitigating climate-change impacts.

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Deforestation has reduced the capacity of the soil to retain water from the rainfall Sohra receives annually, he explained.

“Whatever rainfall it receives rolls down the hills as it is rarely harvested to alleviate water scarcity,” Lyngdoh told The Federal.

Sohra, as a result, faces the proverbial plight of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Water shortages

“At least 40 per cent of the residents in the constituency face an acute shortage of potable water. They purchase water from private contractors at exploitative prices. The problem is particularly acute during the winter season from November to February,” said Harold Firming Khongsit, the constituency’s Trinamool Congress candidate.

If his party is voted to power, Khongsit said, it will install piped drinking water connections to all households.

According to Jal Jeevan Mission reports, more than half of Meghalaya households do not have access to tap water connections as of February this year.

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Home Minister Shah at an election rally blamed the “corruption” in the outgoing Meghalaya government for the poor coverage while promising tap water connectivity to every house if the BJP comes to power.

Sohra residents are, however, not getting swayed by those pre-poll promises.

“These are all empty promises. They do not mean anything to us, just like those raindrops rolling down the hills,” said Sweety Swer, another Sohra resident.