Famous for its floating islands (<i>phumdis</i>) and picturesque landscape, the condition of the Loktak Lake in Manipur is deteriorating

Imphal: Famous for its floating islands (phumdis) and picturesque landscape, the condition of the Loktak Lake in Manipur is, sadly, deteriorating. Researchers blame changes in the hydrology due to the construction of dams, blockage of migratory routes for fish, drying up of wetlands from siltation and exploitation for declining indigenous fish variety in the lake.

A study funded by Society of Wetland Scientists indicated that the highest loss of land used class was in phumdis with thin vegetation (49.38 sq km) followed by phumdis with thick vegetation (8.59 sq km), while there was an overall increase in open water bodies (27 sq km) in the past 38 years.

The 266-sq-km Loktak is Northeast India’s largest freshwater lake and a Ramsar site of international importance. This ancient lake plays an important role in the economy of the state. It serves as a source of water for hydropower generation, irrigation and drinking water supply. The lake is also a source of livelihood for the rural fishermen who live in the surrounding areas and on phumdis, also known as phumshongs.

Loktak Lake is fed by the Manipur river and several tributaries and Ithai Barrage (Ungamel Channel) is its only outlet now. The origin of the Manipur river system and its tributaries, which flows in a north-south direction and drains into the lake is from the hill ranges immediately to the west of the lake. The five major rivers with indirect catchment area of 7,157 sq km are Manipur, Iril, Thoubal, Sekmai and Khuga.

The other streams which drain into the lake and which bring in lot of silt are Nambul, Nambol, Thongjarok, Awang Khujairok, Awang Kharok, Ningthoukhong, Potsangbam, Oinam, Keinou and Irulok. The lake is located on the southern side of the Manipur river basin and is at the lowest elevation in the valley and no other major river flows into the lake, except a few rivulets.

Impact of the Ithai Barrage

Ithai Barrage was constructed in the downstream of Manipur river as a part of the National Loktak Multipurpose Hydro-Electric Project, to maintain sufficient water volume in the lake by making it a reservoir for maintenance of the project. The project was commissioned in 1983. With the construction of the Ithai Barrage, there have been certain changes in the climatic condition and socio-economic life of the people and environment of Manipur.

One major impact of the Ithai Barrage on the environment of Manipur is the flooding of several thousand hectares of agricultural land around the Loktak Lake. The maintenance of constant water level of Loktak Lake due to the Ithai Barrage has flooded the agricultural land around the lake, which were previously utilised for cultivation. Secondly, phumdis have been disappearing.

Maipakchao Oinam, president of the Loktak Eco-tourism Development Organisation, explained that the phumdis float during the rains and sink during the dry months, sucking nutrients from the lake bed to replenish their roots and float again when the next monsoon cycle begins.

“This has been their life cycle for centuries but it is now at grave risk. The Loktak Hydroelectric Project constantly keeps the water level in the lake high. Unable to feed from the nutrients on the bed, the phumdis are thinning out and even breaking away. Worse, local residents themselves are breaking off pieces of the biomass to sell elsewhere as rich fish culture soil,” he added.

The 266-sq-km Loktak is Northeast India’s largest freshwater lake and a Ramsar site of international importance

The third impact of Ithai Barrage is high level of siltation in Loktak Lake. The blockade of water current in the outlet of Loktak Lake through Manipur river has affected the normal flow of river and helped in depositing of silts at Loktak Lake itself from different inlets of the catchment areas.

Fourthly, ecology of the peripheral areas of Loktak Lake, which were used as grazing ground of cattle in the past, have become inundated due to the maintenance of constant water level of Loktak Lake by Ithai Barrage. Even the existence of endangered brow-antlered deer of Keibul Lamjao National Park is at high risk. “The environment around Loktak has been changed and the number of cattle and buffaloes has been reduced to a great extent in the last five years. It directly and indirectly affects livelihood of the villagers,” says a village elder of Thanga.

Most importantly, indigenous fish varieties of Loktak Lake have vanished in last two to three decades following the construction of the Ithai Barrage across the Manipur river. KH Deven, a local NGO worker of Loktak, explained, “Fish prefer shallow areas for breeding but the constant high level of water in Loktak for the functioning of the barrage has destroyed their breeding habitats.”

In addition, the run-off from chemical fertilisers used in agriculture and untreated sewage from Imphal also directly affects the biodiversity of the lake. “Before the construction of the barrage, minor carps such as Pengba (popular fish in Manipur) used to migrate from Myanmar to Manipur and enter Loktak Lake upstream for breeding and spawning,” Deven said.

Last year, Manipur governor Najma Heptulla claimed, “As many as 16 species of indigenous fishes are believed to have become extinct due to the blocking of water by the Ithai barrage.” Heptulla was speaking at a closing function of the 63rd Wildlife Week celebration organised by the Manipur state forest and environment department.

Damage to the indigenous fishing community

Catching fish has been the main source of livelihood of people of Thanga and its surrounding villages in Manipur

Catching fish has been the main source of livelihood of people of Thanga and its surrounding villages. “In the past, some 70-80 years ago fish was found in abundance in Loktak Lake. The catch was so abundant that we (fishing community) had to develop the skills and process of preserving fish for future uses by drying in the sun and smoking in the fire and further keep dry fish over long periods for sale,” said Henthyoi, a resident of Thanga village and a retired fisherwoman.

In 1990, the Ramsar Convention declared Loktak a wetland of international importance. And in 2006, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) enforced the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, under which the government began to clear the lake of human encroachment and fisher folks were asked to leave the phumdis. But the fishing families refused to leave their traditional habitat.

The LDA issued a notice on November 11, 2011 and asked phumsang dwellers to evacuate their settlement and take Rs 40,000 each as compensation. LDA officials claimed that 519 families received the compensation and the rest refused to accept the compensation, saying it was too little and protesting the disruption to their means of livelihood. After few days, LDA officials and armed policemen torched their huts and around 777 huts were burnt down.

Oinam Rajen of All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union Manipur (ALLAFUM) alleged that the eviction was “illegal”. He questioned, “How Th Ibobi Singh (then director of LDA) ordered the eviction? Only magistrate can sign such order but LDA ignored the constitution and burnt down our houses.”

Later they moved the Gauhati High Court and currently only 333 families live in their phumsangs at Loktak after High Court passed a stay order on eviction on February 25, 2012. However, Leishangthem Susindro Meitei, who was recently appointed as the chairman of LDA, said, “Central government is continuously monitoring the insurgency activity in Manipur. The eviction was carried out by the Congress government as a part of maintenance of internal security of the state.”

Encroachment has also hit the lake hard

However, Rajen demanded scrapping of the 2006 Loktak Development Act. “How they can label us ‘encroacher’ while Champu Khangpok (his village) was mentioned as revenue village in 2001 and 2011 census with population of 1,687 and 2,002 respectively,” asked Rajen with a document as proof in his hand.

Rajen further explained that the rights of fisher folk are being curtailed in the name of conservation and they are prevented from carrying traditional fishing equipment inside the lake as per provisions of the act.

Sharing a similar sentiment, another senior member of ALLAFUM said the demand for fish has increased in past decades. However, adequate fish is not available in the lake. There is a need to balance ecological protection and human needs. The government needs to take up some development schemes for the fishing community of the Loktak and others around the lake.

Fish collected from the lake
Till 1950s, the lake was known to be a breeding ground of indigenous fish
Local markets are flooded with fish collected from the lake
Various fish species have already disappeared from the lake ecosystem

Restoration of Loktak Lake

Manipur High Court Division bench passed an order on August 7 this year, prohibiting any of the state government departments, even the Manipur state wetlands authority, from taking up any new project or development programmes concerning Loktak Lake without permission from the court. The order was passed in connection with a PIL taken up by the High Court on its own, for the preservation of Loktak Lake.

Various species of fish have already disappeared fro the lake

According to LDA chairman Leishangthem Susindro Meitei, decommissioning of Ithai Barrage is the only way to restore the natural ecosystem of Loktak Lake.

“NHPC caused the major damage in the lake by constructing the dam. Even the unplanned design of the dam flooded thousands of hectares of agricutural land,” he said. He further claimed that LDA has repeatedly requested NHPC to clean Khodrak channel that could control of flood in the agricultural areas around the lake but NHPC is not interested to do so. Before the dam was constructed the excess water of Loktak used to be discharged to Manipur river through Khordak.

Earlier, minor carps such as Labeo angara, L bata, L dero besides Pengba, etc, were available in the lake

“NHPC should open the barrage during rainy season that can help in normal flow of the water,” he added.

In view of the development, the villagers — particularly the younger generation of Loktak — expressed their desire to have certain development programmes including the skill development for the improvement their livelihood through eco-tourism activities. Suresh Laishram Singh, a recent graduate of Moirang College, said, “Hundreds of foreign tourists came every year to see Loktak Lake but hardly any people know about our homestay. I opened my homestay inside Loktak Lake two years ago but I have no idea how to get promoted. I have reached out to tourism department but nobody cares.”

A huge number of families are surviving on the lake

The LDA chairman explained, “The state has very low budget but we have already taken up many positive steps towards restoring the livelihood of local communities. We have given 5 square km of lands to communities in many villages for agricuture and fishing. Moreover, there is a need for regular monitoring and implementing proper land use practices in and around the lake in order to restore the degraded ecosystem plagued by pollution and an altered aquatic regime.”

Many calls and text messages to local MLA of Bishnupur and chairman of Manipur Pollution Control Board Laishram Radhakishore Singh went unanswered.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues)

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