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Reassessing Nambul River’s rights to free, unobstructed environmental flow

FILE: Muck piled up near Khwairamband marketplace in the heart of Imphal Smart City

The Nambul is not a long flowing river. Yet, it is vital for hundreds of local communities who thrive along its flow, right from its sources in the Kangchup and Kounu hills up to the very point where it becomes one with Loktak.


By Salam Rajesh


The World at large is currently deliberating on many issues of concern directly relevant with human lives in terms of changing climatic regimes and the seemingly destruction of ecosystems, consciously and unconsciously, too. Depletion of vital forest ecosystems that sustain sources of water, and the depletion of wetlands and rivers conspicuously influenced by anthropogenic activities are in the forefront of the discussions.

Among other emerging concerns, the United Nations has emphasized on the restoration of ecosystems to achieve many things, of which restoring mountain ecosystem and wetlands feature prominently in order to achieve targets set for Agenda 2030. The overall objective is to meet the deadline of ‘freezing’ global temperature rise by the year 2030.

On this note, real time emphasis is being stressed on the revival and restoration of wetlands and rivers to near natural status to achieve multiple ecosystem services and benefits. Like in the rest of the world, a concern for Manipur presently is in restoring the vitality of the existing wetlands and rivers.

The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Rivers pronounces six fundamental rights of a river. These rights include: The Right to Flow, The Right to Perform Essential Functions within its Ecosystem, The Right to be Free from Pollution, The Right to Feed and be Fed by Sustainable Aquifers, The Right to Native Biodiversity, and The Right to Regeneration and Restoration. These rights are viewed from the perspective of scientific temper, and social, cultural, political and economic aspects, and, importantly, humanism.

The Declaration outlines that, “Rivers are essential to all life by supporting a wondrous diversity of species and ecosystems, feeding wetlands and other aquatic habitats with abundant water, delivering life-giving nutrients to coastal estuaries and the oceans, carrying sediments to river deltas teeming with life, and performing other essential ecological functions”.

In this broad background, the picture of a ‘dying’ lake and a highly polluted river comes to mind instantly. During these past forty years, Manipur’s iconic freshwater lake Loktak has featured in many discussions and heated debates – for all the wrong reasons.

The problem with Loktak Lake is conspicuously connected to its feeder rivers and streams, of which the most pervasive is definitely the Nambul River. This river is basically the “river of sorrow” for the lake, in terms of the excessive damages it does, by no fault of its own.

The Nambul is not a long flowing river. Yet, it is vital for hundreds of local communities who thrive along its flow, right from its sources in the Kangchup and Kounu hills up to the very point where it becomes one with Loktak. It flows through the heart of Imphal ‘city’, a fact which becomes a prime reason why the river is bad news for the freshwater lake.

In the pre-Loktak hydroelectric project era, that would be prior to 1980 before Ithai Barrage permanently blocked Manipur River passage, the river was thriving and teeming with life. Potters from down south in Chairen and Thongjao villages of Thoubal District would ferry their earthen wares all the way up to Imphal central marketplace via Manipur River, Loktak and then Nambul River.

This writer as a school going kid saw the Chairen potters unload their ware from their dugout canoe at Khwairamband Keithel (central Imphal). Local people living along Nambul River in urban areas, right from Hiyanthang up to Naoremthong in Imphal, fished day in and day out when shoals of migratory fish species swam upstream along the river via Manipur River and Loktak.

The connectivity of local people with the river was definitely pronounced. People used the river water for almost all of their domestic needs. Chinese dip nets were everywhere, with the women locked to their concern on managing the highest amount of catch. A wide variety of fish were harvested in a process of natural capture fishery.

All these processes were lost once the Ithai Barrage was commissioned in 1983, ushering in a new dimension of lost connectivity between people and the river. The environmental flow of Manipur River and Nambul River almost came to an abrupt halt. The Loktak became a vast spread of water as an artificial reservoir for the hydro project, devoid of its natural flow and cycle, its water becoming stagnant and perhaps lifeless.

The process led to several forms of negative impact upon the lake and the rivers. Stagnation led to proliferation of invasive weeds and aquatic plants, dominating over the original vegetation that provided food and fodder for the locals. Food sources from harvest of migratory fish and aquatic plants diminished with each passing year. Rural economy suffered extensively from these reasons, and from the permanent submergence of vast tracts of fertile agricultural lands.

Down the line of these past four decades, one very pervasive demand of the locals has been the decommissioning of the Ithai Barrage to bring back life to what was there before 1983. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited, the agency for the hydro project, of course had absolutely refused to budge from their stand. For them, it is essential for the barrage to exist to feed the hydro project. The hue and cry of the locals is no concern for them at all.

Coming back to the principles of the UDRR, the question on free, environmental flow of both Manipur River and Nambul River becomes profoundly important at this juncture where the concerns on degradation and degeneration of Loktak becomes a vital issue of the State. The issue, while taking to task environmental concerns, reflects drastically on the livelihoods of thousands of locals who depend on the lake for their living and sustenance.

The task in hand is to establish rapport amongst State’s policy planners, intellectuals, civil society organizations and local communities to chart a roadmap that will deal effectively with the multiple problems plaguing Loktak and its feeders. To achieve this, it is absolutely necessary that the entire structure of Loktak Development Authority is deconstructed and rebuild anew with scientific temper which has been missing all this while. Not the least to say, roping in the proactive participation of local communities is primary in achieving the goal.

An integrated approach of river and wetland management, commencing right from the catchments up to the last point of e-flow of the Nambul River where it becomes one with Loktak Lake is definitely vital in achieving success. Redoing what has been done incorrectly (non-scientifically, that is) in all of these years will be hard going, but as the saying goes, “better late than never”.

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

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