Land of water, no more

Tripura has 35,000 litres of water annually per capita. That is double that of the national average. So why are its people still facing water shortage?
Soil erosion raises river beds in Tripura
Soil erosion raises river beds in Tripura

The name Tripura originated from 'Twi' meaning water and 'Para' meaning land. The indigenous population, which is about 32%, refer to Tripura as Twipra, meaning land of water. However, the state no longer seems to be living up to its name. Its annual average per capita water availability is 35,000 liters, which is almost double that of the national average of 18,000 liters but people are still facing a two-pronged problem - water shortage as well as water-borne diseases. 

Large-scale deforestation and degradation of vegetation cover in hills have resulted in massive soil erosion and rise of river beds. This means less storage capacity and drainage of excess water to Bangladesh. A report of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Department found that the groundwater table in more than 60% of the region is below traceable limits because of physio-geographical structure of the soil. At many places, the groundwater is also laden with excess fluoride, arsenic, nitrates or iron.

Students and teachers in over 200 primary schools are forced to walk to adjacent areas to access potable water every day since there are either no tubewells on their premises or they aren't functional. Absence of water also means that around 70% of school toilets are unusable making school hours the most difficult part of the day for students, especially girls.

Deforestation to blame

Water issue in any hill state can’t be understood without a look at the status of forest and forestry activities. Nowadays, natural forests and trees of Tripura are being used to cultivate cash crops like rubber. Over the last two decades, entire traditional forests that allowed small vegetation to grow have been replaced with teak and rubber. This destroys the entire vegetation cover on the top soil due to increased canopy. 

The 6,292 sq km of total recorded forest area has been reduced to 5,745 sqkm over the past three decades. A Forest Survey of India report claims that between Tripura's forest cover reduced from 0.60 million hectares to 0.22 million hectares between 1972 and 1975 and between 1997 and 1999. At the same time, forest land has been encroached upon greatly since 1980. While around 16,210 families had reportedly encroached upon forest land measuring 5,305.30 hectares till 1980, the number has gone up to 43,215 families occupying 13,925.71 hectares in 1991. Around 8,191 hectares of this land was reserved forest. 

The implementation of the Forest Rights Act has also led to the distribution of land rights to 19,000 forest dwelling families on around 1.76 lakh hectares of land in the last three years. It is alleged that more than 70% of these families are not traditional forest dwellers. 

High on contaminants

Water-borne diseases have claimed 113 lives in the past four years in Tirpura. A report of the Northeastern Regional Institute of Water and Land Management (NERIWLM) found that 2,931 habitations of Tripura have fluoride, nitrate, iron or arsenic content beyond the permissible limits in their groundwater. NERIWLM proposed a multi-pronged strategy to reduce nitrate pollution including the reduction of chemical fertilisers, prevention of leaching of sewage pollution and improving rainwater harvesting. For excess iron and salinity, local solutions based on rainwater harvesting, in-situ dilution and recharge techniques were suggested.

This post was based on a paper submitted for the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit held at Kohima, Nagaland, on September 25-27. The original submission can be downloaded below.

 

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