Shillong: Esther Kharbuli wakes up before sunrise every day to place her buckets up ahead at the community tap in Nongrah, ensuring she doesn’t have to wait in the lengthy queue to fetch water for her family of four.

“I have to manage the entire household using only five buckets of water. Some days we don’t even get that. We have purchased water from tankers a few times when we were in need but it is not something we can afford,” she says.

Many like Esther have been on the receiving end of prolonged water scarcity, with Meghalaya grappling with one of the worst water crises in recent times, leaving residents and authorities deeply concerned about the implications for the region’s livelihoods and ecosystem.

The region, which is almost entirely dependent on monsoons for its water supply, power and agriculture, has seen a significant decline in rainfall, resulting in depleted water sources. 

As per recent research by noted scholar Baniateilang Majaw, Meghalaya has had a 15% decrease in rainfall over the past five years, exacerbating the already dire water scarcity in a situation where the demand for potable water has been growing.

The study suggests that the current crisis is a culmination of multiple factors, including climate change, deforestation, and unsustainable water management practices. These issues have synergistically led to a decline in water availability, particularly in urban areas.

The state’s capital Shillong has been hit particularly hard by the water crisis with multiple local media reports suggesting that people are now being forced to ration water. 

For the ones who can afford it, purchasing water from tankers still remains an easier resort, but for the majority, the only option is resorting to alternative, often unhygienic, sources. This includes local streams and rivulets where effective effluent treatment does not exist.

Even Sohra, once the world’s wettest place, has been suffering. 

When Sohra created a world record for the highest rainfall in 1861, it received 22,987mm of rainfall in a year. More than 150 years later, it has reduced by more than half to 11359.4 mm a year as per the Indian Meteorological Department.

Ecological factors are not the only reason for the scarcity of water in the state. Research by local scholar Bankerlang Kharmylliem at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, points to many operational concerns within the Public Health Engineering department as well. 

As per the report, a water loss of 20.5 per cent takes place pre-consumption in the process of water getting treated and then transmitted to the main reservoir. Following that, the measure of unaccounted-for water — or water that has been produced and is wasted even before it reaches the consumer — is steep where losses are more than 50 per cent.

This means that in most situations, leakages and siphoning go largely untraced.

The long-term consequences of the water crisis are concerning for Meghalaya, which could not only have severe implications for agriculture and biodiversity but impact the overall socio-economic fabric of the state.

Currently, residents are also battling a severe power crisis due to insufficient rainfall and receding reservoir levels, with power cuts in the state ranging from 8-10 hours daily. 

The Power Department has now officially stated that Shillong’s main source of power, the Umiam Hydroelectric Project, is now at risk of being shut down due to an alarming drop in water levels.

While certain steps have been taken to address the water crisis in Meghalaya, enforceability has been a problem.

When the state became the country’s first to have a water policy in 2019, it mandated all buildings to have rooftop rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge mechanisms, which would be enforced by concerned authorities.

However, few noted contractors of the city stated that many of their constructions — mostly residential — have received clearance certificates without checks for rainwater harvesting. 

Awareness has been another major problem, with most national education boards having removed environmental education as a separate subject at secondary school education.

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Even the curriculum of Meghalaya’s state board has not undergone major review and update in recent years, so as to reflect the current environmental challenges in the state.

With Meghalaya grappling with its worst water crisis, the need has never been more urgent to enforce sustainable water management, check for unabiding construction practices and implement proactive measures to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Also Read | Meghalaya buying power worth Rs 3 crore every day: CM Sangma

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