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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 26, Dated July 05, 2008

Fading Power

Siltation and pollution contribute to the power crisis in Shillong

Development analyst

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 blue-eyed beauty.

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.

Officially, inadequate 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

Illustration: Neelakash Kshetrimayum

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 state?

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. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 26, Dated July 05, 2008

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