Troubled waters of the Northeast
Modern development models for the remote hills of the Northeast are replacing age-old conventions thereby creating inequity in the distribution of water.
15 Dec 2013
Hills of Northeast India Source: Wikipedia

On a train journey from Nagaland, a friend and I began talking on the subject of water. He said to me, "You have so much water in the Brahmaputra Valley and your lands are always flooded but we have to struggle for a drop of water in the hills". I said, "You can save us from the catastrophe of floods by keeping the thick forest cover on the ridges so that water rushing down the valley does not carry silt, which raises riverbeds leading to floods". "But we survive on firewood and need to cut trees for survival whereas you can create these resources artifically with all kinds of gadgets in the cities", he countered. Touche. I could not argue much further but this issue remained with me for a very long time. It struck me that most of the conflicts in mountain ecosystems were because of water sources, water sharing and water use. 

Declining traditions, rising conflicts

Community lands, water sources and forest areas are gradually being owned by individuals, chiefs of clans, powerful elites and corporations who plan a modern development model for the remote hills of the Northeast forgetting age-old conventions and innovative techniques created for the judicious and equitable use of water. 

Bamboo channels in the villages of Nagaland take the water to a storage tank from where it is shared by the entire village residents. On every terrace field in Phek district of Nagaland, there is a farm pond that irrigates the field and also breeds aquatic life, including fish, frogs, crabs and snail, which form a very important part of their diet. 

The story is a little different up in the mountains. The quantity of water in mountain lakes, springs and streams is gradually shrinking due to over use, thin forest cover, heavy erosion and landslides. Mountain villages are gradually turning into bigger towns and smaller cities. These cities cater to a huge population with soaring demands of many resources including water. The rainy season is especially difficult-flash floods and water scarcity coexist. 

Private stranglehold on water

Water has turned into liquid gold and is gradually becoming a privilege of a few. Many residents pay huge water bills but also buy water for daily consumption as the state water supply is irregular and of poor quality. The rate of privatised drinking water fluctuates regularly. It ranges from Rs 300-350 for 1000 litres in Shillong to Rs 450 in Aizwal. In Kohima, the prices ranges between Rs 600-800 for 1500 litres while Guwahati gets 1000 litres for Rs 250-300. 

In the hill states, water use is amicably distributed through community user groups and people’s committees. If this community thread is snapped and the entire water supply process is privatised, there will be an adverse impact especially on the marginalised sections of society. The blind aping of development models of the West and the Oriental south cannot be the norm for policy makers and technocrats in India. Water related issues cannot be determined only by expensive projects with a public-private partnership and bilateral treaties between developed nations. 

In the current scenario, water usage has exceeded limits and technological advancement has reached such heights that water is consistently needed to produce electricity. Hydroelectric dams in most of the mountain rivers across Northeast India have resulted in severe socio-economic and natural imbalances. Some of the existing dam sites have become tourist attractions rather than being power supply hubs for the villages, towns and cities in the neighbouring areas. 

Look beyond boundaries

In the region, we are constantly playing tug of war among our own kin and kith within our territorial boundaries, state boundaries and within our ethnic identities but water is a resource that goes beyond borders or boundaries. This calls for an eco-system approach rather than a state specific response. 

The topography of Northeast India is such that it has a common ecosystem beyond international borders. Upstream activities of Bhutan, China and Nepal will have a direct impact on the hill ranges and flood plains of Assam and Bangladesh. Unless we create a common ground to think about possibilities as an international regional ecosystem collective, no viable solution can be drawn from the inevitable disasters which are at the doorstep of the Northeast. 

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 from below.


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