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Global water crises threaten humanity and species


The same issue is there with Manipur River. Extensive watershed depletion in its catchment along the Koubru mountain range had reduced the e-flow of the river and quite unpredictable, too. In this decade and earlier, there were instances when the river almost ran dry.

By Salam Rajesh

Water crises in multiple forms are quite evident as emerging reports from around the world continue to flood newspapers and social media platforms. The crises range from watershed depletion, reduction in e-flow of mountain streams and rivers, siltation, reduction in underground water storage capacities, degradation of water bodies, pollution – all these factors finally leading to unprecedented flash floods, water scarcity and droughts, and loss in biological diversity.

News that are quite shocking come in now and then, so much as this New York Times’ 16 October (2021) issue with the bold headlines, ‘In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts’.

Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund has this to say of the Colorado River crisis, “Climate scientists have pretty well articulated that something like 40 to 60 percent of the decline is due to a warming climate”.

 “We are seeing the effects of climate change in the Colorado River basin through extended drought, extreme temperatures, expansive wildfires, and in some places, flooding and landslides. And now is the time to take action to respond to them. The basin is experiencing its 22nd year of drought. And earlier this summer, the reservoirs hit their lowest levels since they were originally filled”.

On a similar note, the global organization International Rivers issued a press release (11 October, 2021) with an urgent message for the world community: “More than 570 experts from 97 countries urge the UN to strengthen freshwater biodiversity protections as Humanity faces catastrophic losses of aquatic species and habitats”.

The International Rivers’ press communiqué says, “Freshwater ecosystems globally are being degraded faster even than they are on land or at sea, and freshwater fishes and other aquatic animals face much higher risks of extinction than do their terrestrial or marine counterparts. One-quarter of the world’s rivers now run dry before reaching the ocean”.

Professor James S.Albert of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a lead author of the scientific article ‘Scientists’ warning to humanity on the freshwater biodiversity crisis’ (Ambio, January 2021) adds: “The current human use of freshwater resources is utterly unsustainable, and getting worse every decade. However, there is still time to avert the worst outcomes if we act swiftly. Action plans and technologies are already available to help conserve and restore freshwater ecosystems and their critical environmental services. The time to act is now”.

The two cases cited are typical of the emerging stories on water crises all over the world. While there are stories of rivers overflowing due to glacial melts and causing extensive damages to lower riparian areas, there are stories of rivers running dry as their sources get depleted from over-use by humans. In both cases, it is ultimately humanity who suffers.

Examples are not far to seek in Manipur, too. Extensive watershed depletion in the catchment of Nambul River had reduced Singda Dam to a situation where the water reservoir is unable to supply enough potable water to Imphal city while the e-flow of the river has reduced considerably in these past years.

The same issue is there with Manipur River. Extensive watershed depletion in its catchment along the Koubru mountain range had reduced the e-flow of the river and quite unpredictable, too. In this decade and earlier, there were instances when the river almost ran dry.

International Rivers is of the expressed opinion that, ‘Irreplaceable freshwater species and habitats on which humanity depends are being lost at a faster rate than on land or in seas; world leaders must prioritize urgent and targeted actions to protect and restore these ecosystems and defend the rights of Indigenous and marginalized communities disproportionately affected by these losses’.

This clarion call to world leaders reflect exactly what the marginalized fishers community of Loktak Lake had been faring during these past four decades and more. The inroad of so-said ‘developmental’ projects and schemes had effected tremendous changes in the lake’s ecosystem wherein every aspect of human lives, wildlife and biodiversity had been impacted to an extent where much has been lost and are irreplaceable.

The changes in hydrological regime of the lake and its associated rivers, influenced by the Ithai Barrage, is the main factor affecting the lake ecosystem. Ithai Barrage blocks the traditional route of migratory fishes coming upstream along Manipur River from Chindwin-Irrawaddy and the Bay of Bengal. This resulted in sharp decline in the traditional fish population within Loktak and the other water bodies upstream of Ithai Barrage, reducing the food supplement and earnings of the local people.

The corresponding impact on the fishers’ livelihoods was too pronounced. With increasingly less fish catch in the lake, the fishers started inventing various methods to harvest the fish – using different variety of fish nets and traps, and even to the extent of not sparing the fingerlings. The Government, too, had to step in to replenish the declining fish stock with introduced fish species of the carp family.

This is where the International Rivers’ reference to defending the rights (to life and livelihoods) of IPLCs, here referring particularly to the fishers community of Loktak and its associated water bodies, comes for deliberation and expressed scrutiny at both local and global context.

On the other hand, the consistent pursuance of the Manipur Government for removing all of the fishers community from within the precinct of the Loktak Lake again brings up the issue of defending the rights of IPLCs in their own territory of life.

The entire spread of the lake is traditionally the commons for the fishers and farmers accessing its resources for their living. A wide variety of activity happens within and around the lake. People fish, harvest edible aquatic plants and insects, and fodder for their cattle. Day in and day out, people access the lake to look for food and the means to earn for their families.

The State has apparently excluded the IPLCs from its scheme of things. As the UN correctly says, IPLCs are integral to the natural landscapes and the best practices for protection and conservation of ecosystems lay with the indigenous peoples and local communities for whom the ecosystem services of these natural landscapes provide them food and the means for their survival.

The State needs to incorporate the fishers of Loktak within its scheme of things for the long term conservation of the lake and the wildlife that thrives here to achieve wholesome meaning to the ecosystem restoration of Loktak.

Darryl Knudsen, International Rivers’ Executive Director has this to chip in: “As Indigenous Peoples and others remind us: water is life. Our survival depends on fisheries, wetlands, birds, clean water, free-flowing rivers, insects, and the entire web of freshwater systems for food, health, and culture”. 

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

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