Meghalaya has always prided itself on its pure water flowing from the crystal clear mountain streams and springs amidst pristine forests. But over the past three years, the state’s Public Health Engineering (PHE) department has been receiving numerous complaints about the poor quality of the water being supplied to homes. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and an “Own Motion” by the Meghalaya High Court (MHC), point to the urgency of the matter.
The problem is that rivers are being polluted by unchecked sand mining, quarrying, rapid urbanization and other “developmental’ activities in the ecologically sensitive regions of this hilly state, causing a deterioration in water quality, as admitted by the Meghalaya State Assembly Committee on Environment. The resultant high turbidity due to heavy presence of soil and other particles in the once pure rivers and springs means more chemicals have to be used to make the water fit for drinking.
Where does the city get its water?
PHE has several schemes supplying drinking water to the 3,54,759 people (2011 Census) in the Shillong Urban Agglomeration area. The main one which feeds more than half the capital’s population is the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme (GSWSS), which sources its water from the Umiew river at Mawphlang, about 25 kms from the city where the water treatment plant and reservoir are located. The Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) which serves the Shillong Municipal Area alone also has its own network and water sources but since the last few years has been sharing water from the GSWSS to feed its clients as its water sources are drying up.
SMB’s water sources, seven springs and a stream, Umjasai, all lie in the Shillong Peak Protected Forests Range. But deforestation has devastated these sources of water, say SMB officials. The SMB is making efforts to rejuvenate its water sources with the help of the state forest department, but with little success so far.
The Meghalaya Legislative Assembly Committee on Environment led by the SMB’s chairman, S K Sun, MLA, which had inspected the reservoirs and treatment plants at Mawphlang on June 25th found that the city has a major problem — of both water quality and quantity. The panel, with six MLAs as members, was set up by a resolution of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly last year to go into growing issues of environmental degradation.
What’s wrong with the water?
Officials at the Mawphlang water treatment plant told the visiting panel that when water turbidity increases, especially now during the rainy season, higher quantity of chemicals like aluminium sulphate and hydrated lime needed to be used to regulate the pH level of water and ensure efficient filtration. Alum works as a coagulant which binds all the suspended particles in raw water into lumps that is easily removed by filtration and settling. Hydrated Lime adjusts the pH level.
As per submissions to the High Court last November by the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board, which is a part of the expert panel constituted by the chief engineer of the PHE, the high alum content in the water sometimes ends up making the water oily. The PHE and other water authorities of the state including the SMB and the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board were dragged to court in the wake of the clamour raised by the Khasi National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) and other organisations about oily and contaminated water coming out of the PHE taps. KHNAM is a political party which presently has one legislator in the state assembly.
Other organisations which have raised concerns at various times about water quality are the State Development Reforms Commission (SDRC), Societal Action against Human Trafficking, Drug Abuse and Social Problem (SAAHAT-DAASP), Civil Society Women’s Organisation (CSWO), All Meghalaya Industrial Workers’ Union, and the North Shillong Domestic and Unorganised Workers’ Union. These organisations have jointly sought a CBI inquiry to look into their allegations of rampant corruption in the department which, they say, led to the state’s water woes.
Getting to the root of the problem
Meanwhile, S K Sun, who was earlier chief engineer of PHE before he was elected to the Assembly in 2018, said unless the catchment areas consisting of about 115 sq km is protected, the GSWSS project on which the capital depends for its drinking water is in danger of becoming redundant. Sun told us that he would recommend to the State Government that the area be declared a protected zone under the National Wetlands Policy, as there was no other way to make people understand the importance of conserving the catchment areas and providing alternative livelihoods to the people now dependent on sand mining and stone quarrying.
According to official sources in the office of the Divisional Forest Officer, East Khasi Hills, there are more than 100 quarries in the district and about a dozen in the said catchment area. The forest department, along with the Mining and Geology department, regulate these activities and hold responsibility for enforcing the Meghalaya Minor Minerals Concession Rules, 2016. Under these rules, all sand or stone miners need to take permission from the forest department before mining permit is allotted. At present, all the quarries have been shut down as part of the forest department’s efforts to better regulate quarrying activity. The State Government levies a royalty on minor minerals generated from quarrying, earning Rs 8,10,77,823 from this in 2017-18.
But this is of little comfort to consumers who are concerned about the possible adverse health effects of higher doses of alum in the water. One member of the Sun Panel, H M Shangpliang, MLA, asked the PHE if there was any other water purification technology they could use instead of alum. But the only alternative PHE could offer was to use a substitute anti-coagulant chemical known as Poly aluminium chloride.
Chief engineer of PHE, K. D. Talukdar, when asked about the poor quality of water said while earlier the treatment plant had only one clariflocculator, it now has two to handle the muddy water during the monsoon season and ensures that only the right dose of alum is used. “The alum itself is filtrated out of the water,” said Talukdar. But the long-term solution, he admits, would be getting raw water that is less turbid, which does not look possible in the near or far future.