Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 26, Dated July 05, 2008
Siltation and pollution contribute to the power crisis in Shillong
IFIRST SAW UMIAM Lake in 2006.
For long, friends from Shillong
had created an idyllic picture of
“Bara Paani” (Big Water), as Umiam is
popularly known. The first look did
not disappoint and I fell in love,
like others before, with Shillong’s
Umiam Lake originated as an
artificial reservoir for the Umiam
Umtru Hydro Electric Power
project, the first of its kind in the
North East. For a long time, this project had
supplied the bulk of its power needs to
Meghalaya. So the state’s love affair with this
lake spans 43 years.
With approximately 12,000 mm of rainfall
each year and a catchment area of 221.5 sq
km (almost double the size of Chandigarh)
Umiam rarely saw any dry days.
Until now, that is. For two years now, Shillong
has confronted one of the worst power
crises ever. The reason is not hard to imagine:
Umiam doesn’t have enough water.
rainfall has been cited as the sole reason, and a correlation does exist
between decreasing water levels (about 39 feet over 3 years) in the lake
and lesser rainfall since 2005. And once the water level falls below 3150
feet, there can be no power generation. Still, the role of rainfall is
being overplayed while the real issue remains unaddressed.
In 2002, the Central
Pollution Control Board brought out a list of polluted lakes and tanks
in India. Umiam represented Meghalaya
on that list. Deservedly
so, since all natural streams that pass through the city and feed the
bigger ones, such as Umkhrah and Umshyrpi, have been converted into open
drains. Most houses dump their sewage as well as other organic and inorganic
waste into these water bodies, which in turn flow into the lake.
Yet, urban growth and deplorable wastewater management
is, unfortunately, only one part of the story. Shillong’s sprawl has triggered
off phenomenal changes in land use further upstream. Stone quarries and
mines dot the landscape and road construction has peaked. As more and
more community lands slip out of bounds for them, poor farmers modify
their jhum cycle (a pattern of shifting cultivation), which is leading
to rapid soil erosion. Studies estimate that 40,000 cubic metres of silt
gets deposited in the Umiam Lake every year. Such siltation lowers storage
capacity and increases water loss through evaporation.
As a result, only an average of 25 MW of electricity was
being generated in April 2008, although the current power generation capacity
was 185.2 MW. In 2006, the Meghalaya State Electricity Board (MeSEB) incurred
a loss of Rs 12.15 crore. In addition to that, the state government had
to shell out Rs 923.3 crore in 2006-07 to buy power from external sources
and at above par rates.
Political solutions are tipped in favour of tapping the
vast coal reserves in South Garo Hills. And in a state that has the potential
to produce 9,500 tonnes of uranium, can nuclear power plants be far behind?
Along the way, a few inconvenient truths get covered up. For example,
is it not true that it’s more cost-effective to protect the catchment,
dredge the lake properly and generate electricity from that source, rather
than set up a string of thermal power plants in an environmentally fragile
If the answer to that is “yes”, the next question is:
who will do this? The reservoir comes under the jurisdiction of the East
Khasi Hill District Council; the management is under MeSEB; water quality
is supposed to be monitored by the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board;
the catchment is managed by the Forest Department, and so on.
Apart from electricity, Umiam Lake also provides a range
of ecological, economic and cultural services. The reservoir was created
through huge public expenditure and the onus to save it lies with the
people. Bethany Society, an NGO, has been involving school children in
tracking garbage dumping along streams. A voluntary consortium, “Save
the Rivers”, has come up. A few organisations have initiated the collection
and composting of organic waste. But such initiatives lack both human
and financial resources. The inaccessibility of scientific studies commissioned
by the state on the lake’s water quality is also a big mystery. Such studies
could have given future campaigns a shot in the arm.
There are steps that can be taken to help reverse the
damage. A Payment for Environmental Services approach would bridge the
gap between upstream suppliers and downstream recipients of environmental
services; trade-offs could be negotiated to ensue a win-win situation
for locals. For example, Shillong’s citizens could compensate jhum cultivators
upstream for shifting to alternate livelihoods or improved farming systems,
to ensure a reliable power supply. Low-cost, community-managed waste water
treatment plants could be constructed by the MeSEB to reduce siltation,
instead of sourcing electricity at premium rates.
It’s time Shillong’s citizens made a few hard choices,
before Umiam becomes another victim of unplanned growth in India. •