Umiam lake conservation -Stakeholder dialogue and future strategies, 9-10 March 2009, Shillong

Guest Post by: Amitangshu Acharya The Umiam Lake Conservation - Stakeholder Dialogue and Future Strategies was held on 9th and 10th March 2009 in Shillong. The presentations and some videos from the conference can be viewed here - To give help learn more about the Lake Umiam in Shillong, here is a backgrounder about Lake Umiam and its importance to Shillong. You can join the discussion forum about Umiam Lake here Umiam Lake ( also known as Barapaani) 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 the State of Meghalaya. 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. However, the question is, whether the role of rainfall is being overplayed while the other issues 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 inadequate 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 ideally lowers storage capacity and increases water loss through evaporation. However, hydrographic surveys conducted by the State declare that siltation is not a problem. There are opinions contrary to this. Independent sources state that even if these claims were correct, the State approaching DONER (Development of North Eastern Region) for large grants for desilting and managing the Lake contradicts its own statement. Officials of Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) states that speed boats often get damage due to excessive silt accumulation in the Lake. Whether excessive siltation or less rainfall, 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. However, with more such hydro power projects coming up to augment State's power generation capacity, it would be a healthy exercise to look for alternatives. 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 continuously create new infrastructure which has attached environmental impacts? If the answer to that is "yes", the next question is: who will do this? The management of the lake is undertaken by MeSEB; water quality is supposed to be monitored by the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board; the lake catchment is managed by the Forest Department, and the urban watershed being an neglected orphan. 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", had come up and done exemplary work. A few organisations such as NEEDS have initiated the collection and composting of organic waste. But such initiatives lack both human and financial resources. A recent workshop hosted by People's Learning Centre, did wanders in making scientific studies commissioned by various organisations on the lake. Such studies will now give a future campaign a shot in the arm. There are steps that can be taken to help reverse the damage. A Payment for Environmental Services (PES) 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 water pollution. MTDC would also benefit from the same as the State has plans to make Umiam Lake tourism USP on the long run. It's now up to citizens of Shillong to take part in river and lake conservation efforts and make the same as key political agenda's. So where do we go from here? (This entry is a modified version of an article written by the same author titled Fading Power that that appeared in Tehelka Magazine in 2008. It can be accessed at:

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