Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Water Woes

A picturesque mountain hamlet in Meghalaya (a province in India) may hold the world record for rainfall, but water is currently the scarcest commodity. Known to the outside world as Cherrapunji, now renamed Sohra, 56 km from Shillong, this town of about 150,000 inhabitants is the world's rainiest place. Perched on the edge of a cliff 4192 feet above the sea level, Cherrapunji overlooking the plains of Bangladesh, holds various world records like highest rainfall in 12 months, 11 months, six months, one month and 15 days.
From August 1860 to July 1861, Cherrapunji recorded 26.5 metre of rainfall and during July in 1861 it was lashed by 9.3 metre of rainfall -- the two records still exist.For a majority of the people who belong to the dominant Khasi race, the fickle weather is what they look forward to. But despite the torrential rain, water is the scarcest of commodities for locals. The South-West monsoon and thunderstorms soak the village from June to September. But during winter, the natural springs and streams dry up and crops suffer. "It is an irony of sorts that the world's rainiest place is, in reality, a wet desert where people have to buy drinking water," Robert Jrwa, a Government official, said.Locals in this predominantly matrilineal society go to distant places and streams downhill to fetch drinking water during winter. Water tapped from streams and supplied through pipelines to the village is inadequate. "We often have to buy drinking water," Sweety Diengdoh, a housewife, said.A jerrycan of water costs anything between Rs 5 to Rs 10. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Mawsynram, also in the State, as getting the highest rainfall. Indian meteorologists, however, say that not only is Sohra getting the maximum rain, but it has also been getting more rainfall in the past decade. "Cherrapunji's record of being the world's rainiest place continues with the village lashed by heavier rains than before," an official of the Regional Meteorological Centre said."People are talking about global warming and there are apprehensions that Sohra might cease to be the world's rainiest place. But the rainfall data indicate that the rain God is quite happy to lash the region," the meteorologist said. But Cherrapunji is now showing signs of desertification as incessant rain wash away the thin layer of soil, leaving very little topsoil in both villages. "With no soil surface to soak the rainwater, most of the rainfall gets quickly discharged resulting in negligible base flows in the streams during winter. This leads to no stored underground water to draw from," a local soil scientist said. Due to lack of topsoil, there is no vegetation in the area. Experts say wanton destruction of the forest cover could be responsible for the yearly drought. The once-thick pine forest is lost and official figures suggest there could be less than ten per cent of the forest cover left. "By denuding the forest cover, villagers invite nature's wrath and the only way to strike a balance is by carrying on afforestation drives in the area," former Meghalaya Geology and Mining Minister DP Iangjuh said. For close to 180 years, it was known as Cherrapunji to the outside world.Now the State Government, under sustained lobbying for decades by the nearly 150,000 tribal Khasi inhabitants, decided to rename Cherrapunji as Sohra -- locals always referred to it as Sohra, expect for official communications. "Sohra is the actual name of this village, but the British rulers tweaked the local name unable to pronounce it correctly and started saying as Cherra....some of the Bengali bureaucrats later added 'punjo,' which means a cluster, to make it Cherrapunji," 82-year-old Marbaniang, a retired schoolteacher, said. Lighting his antique tobacco-filled pipe near the famous Mawsmai cave, five km off Sohra, Marbaniang said the fight to get the original name back was more of a sentimental issue for the locals. "How would you feel if someone for the sake of convenience changes your name from Tom to Harry? If I am Tom call me Tom and not Harry," he said. The British had made Sohra their regional headquarters in the 1830s with the area resembling very much like Scotland with rains and fogs enveloping this quaint little village. Meghalaya, meaning the land of the clouds, later earned the sobriquet from the British as the Scotland of the East for its cool clime. It would take time for the Guinness Book of Records to correct the name, but this village is listed as getting the highest rainfall.

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