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EXCLUSIVE: Assessing anthropogenic activities on watersheds

File Photo of Singda Dam

Imphal city is currently reeling under acute water shortage. Residents here have to purchase potable water or manage with bottled mineral water. The shrinkage of water level to extremely low ebb at Singda dam water reservoir has resulted in this water crisis.

By Salam Rajesh

The raging debates and deliberations on climate urgency worldwide brings to focus several issues that are rooted to grassroots activism and generally linked to human activities that are perceived as negative in nature and by practice. Ranging from extensive forest depletion to degradation of water bodies and unmanaged pollution amongst others, a crucial discussion is on drying up of water sources linked to water crisis in many parts of the world.

Like in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and in South Asia, many parts in North East India including Manipur are facing water crisis of different dimensions – shortage of drinking water, drying up of springsheds leading to mountain streams either drying up or experiencing low e-flow, ground water depletion leading to wells and ponds drying up, and rivers flowing in extremely low ebb. These understandably impacts on human lives, more particularly the highly marginalized section of people living below the poverty line.

Reflecting upon this issue, a recent publication in MDPI’s journal ‘Water’, captioned as ‘Impacts of Anthropogenic Activities on Watersheds in a Changing Climate’ (2021; edited by Luís Filipe Sanches Fernandes and Fernando António Leal Pacheco, University of Tr´as-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Portugal) states that “overexploitation, contamination by humanity and climate variations reduce the availability of water for the targeted uses (e.g., drinking water and irrigation), endangering expected well-being besides the surrounding ecosystems” (2021:1).

The discussion revolves around the issue of water crises in the midst of growing concerns on adverse impacts of changing climatic conditions across the globe. Topics on climate change focuses on food and water crises in every sector of human civilization, whether it be of the upper class community or that of the poorest of the poor. It is either too much of water (e.g., impact of tsunamis and recurrent flooding) or the dearth of it (e.g., recurrent droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa and northern parts of Bangladesh). Whatsoever the context, both are extremities that impact on human lives.

The current discussion is on human influences in watersheds wherein unrestricted or uncontrolled anthropogenic interventions cause multiple problems impacting almost everything – the natural ecosystem, biological life, humans. When watersheds are depleted to an extreme level, evident changes occur in the geophysical character of the place. These changes can lead to near desertification where once there was lush green forest may now look like a desert bereft of its green cover and water sources. When the springsheds dry up completely, rivers die unnatural deaths, and humans downstream suffer extensively when the water table sinks to a low and there’s hardly any water for consumption or for irrigation.

Imphal city is currently reeling under acute water shortage. Residents here have to purchase potable water or manage with bottled mineral water. The shrinkage of water level to extremely low ebb at Singda dam water reservoir has resulted in this water crisis. Tracing a step backward, it goes back to the depletion of forest in Singda catchment that is responsible for the depletion of water in the reservoir. And who are responsible for overexploiting the forests in the Kangchup Reserve Forest that supports watersheds that sources water to feed the reservoir? It’s anybody’s guess.

Luis and Fernando sums up the argument as, “Humanity interferes with the hydrology of streams and rivers through changes in land use, including urbanization, forest–agriculture conversions or other impacting actions. The consequences for water resources and watershed management are numerous, including changes in the share of water balance components (e.g., surface flow, infiltration/groundwater flow, and evapotranspiration), potential water scarcity problems derived therefrom, hydromorphological changes in stream banks and urban floods”.

This does defines the direct impact of human activities in the watersheds where extensive cutting down of the trees can lead to multiple problems like top soil loss leading to erosion and heavy silt load flow downhill, gradual decay and drying up of the sources of water in the micro-watersheds, and a total breakdown in the ecosystem leading to a near desertification process. This is precisely the problem observed in the Koubru mountain range harboring the watersheds that give life to Manipur River or the Kangchup hill range that support watersheds nourishing hill streams that feed the Singda reservoir and Nambul River.

Xiujie Wang, et al., writing in the journal ‘Water’ (2021:89) has this to comment: “The climate and human activities are two factors that can affect the hydrological cycle in different ways. Climate change alters hydrological systems by inducing both spatiotemporal variations of regional precipitation and changes in temperature. Compared with climate change, human activities are more controllable; thus, alteration of human activities constitutes the principal measure for dealing with the potential impacts of climate change on hydrological systems”.

The authors further are of the opinion that, “With recent developments of society and technology, human activities have gradually increased and their consequential impacts on the hydrological cycle on different spatiotemporal scales, such as river basins, have become widely recognized. In general, human activities in river basins can be divided into land use and land cover change (LUCC), e.g., vegetation degradation, deforestation, and urbanization, and water resource utilization behavior and policy (WRUBAP), e.g., agricultural irrigation, reservoir regulation, deep groundwater extraction, and interbasin water diversion”.

In short, different activities of humans are primarily responsible for watershed depletion and loss of the water sources, which consequently becomes the factor for myriad problems including groundwater shrinkage and siltation that is responsible for stream beds becoming shallower by the year. Extensive depletion of forest cover for timber logging, slash and burn agriculture, horticulture and mono-crop farming, is seen to be main factors for springheads drying up completely in the Singda catchment. A large percentage of the numerous springheads in the Singda catchment are reported to be ‘dead’ as of date.

This brings to focus the acute water scarcity in urban Imphal. For the past two months the State’s Public Health Engineering Department has been unable to provide Imphal residents with potable water, forcing the residents to go for commercial vendors. To add to the woe, the conversion of urban water bodies as land-fills for constructions has thrown the urban population in dire straits. Much of the traditional ponds ‘pukhris’ have since been filled in for expansion of settlements or playgrounds, leading to unavailability of water sources particularly in the lean season.

The problem for urban Imphal is accentuated by the degradation of both Naga Turel and Nambul Turel that flow through the heart of the city. In the absence of State’s policy to rejuvenate these rivers, scientifically and in true essence, achieving water security for urban Imphal is going to be a headache for the city planners. The approach need to be a multi-pronged strategy addressing the watersheds issue, siltation, sewage and pollution loads, and community-sensitive conservation action plans. The healthy rejuvenation of the Kangchup watersheds and the urban water bodies can help address both climate and livelihoods issues locally in long term measure.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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