Meghalaya: The acidic and dying rivers of Jaintia Hills – The Myntdu and the Lukha rivers
It is very appalling that the change in colour of the Myntdu and Lukha rivers in Jaintia Hills has not raised any radical reactions from the local, state and central governments or from the local NGOs, academia etc. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had earlier indicated in a report that the high acid content in the rivers will prevent the sustenance of any life forms. It also declared the water unfit for consumption. The pH values of most of the sampling locations flouted both the national and global permissible limits prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for drinking water and by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The year 2007 witnessed the death of fishes and all other life forms which killed the local fishing livelihoods for the residents who used to depend heavily on the revenues from sale of fish at the local dhabas and local shops as well as providing protein in the food intake of the local people. Some of the recent evidences were the death of fishes seen floating over a distance of 25 Kms on the water surface of the Lukha river from Sakhri to Borsora villages in 2013 as well as in recently as in late 2015. The bluish colour of the rivers was observed as early as January 2007 and it is astonishing that till date, the government and the scientists have not been able to suggest the causes for this phenomenon.
The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) in an investigation report on the contamination of Lukha river undertaken in 2008 indicated that Lukha was polluted and had turned blue as the its tributary, the Lunar river was highly acidic and reacted with the limestone effluents causing the bluish tint in the river. The contaminants of the coal and limestone leaching and effluents were so lethal that it killed the life forms in the tributary as well as the Lukha river. The report also pointed out that lack of rainfall in the catchment area was also a determining factor as rain water could not reach the confluence and dilute the contaminated water in the winter months. Another 2012 report by the MSPCB attributed acid effluents from coal mines as the major probable causes of water pollution in the area. However, the 2008 report did not articulately indicate and explicitly specify the reasons for the bluish tint in the rivers. The Comptroller and Accountant General (CAG) had quoted a 2006-07 NEEPCO report indicating that acidic water caused severe corrosion to the plant and machinery in the 275 MW power project in Kopili River in Assam feeding on water from catchment areas in coal mining areas in Meghalaya. This was later confirmed by Central Agencies such as the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Soil and Material Research Station (CSMRS) in 2008-09. The run of the river power projects of the Meghalaya Electricity Corporation Ltd (MeECL), at Leshka confluence, has also reported that high acidic content of the water in the river is constantly corroding their machinery. Interactions with village residents of these affected areas and fellow researchers at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in 2012 highlighted the challenging plight of the locals and how they have been forced to adapt to a degraded quality of life. According to the villagers intensive mining of limestone and coal and unsustainable practices adopted by the cement companies have destroyed the ecology and biodiversity of the environment.
Villagers stated that the Lukha river use to be a lively river full of fish and aquatic life and the major source of potable drinking water and irrigation as well as subsistence for the local fishing industry but all life forms started disappearing from the year 2007 onwards when most cement plants started production. The water bodies have been contaminated by wastewater released from the cement plants and therefore unfit not only for drinking but also for other domestic purposes. A study undertaken by the Department of Environmental Studies, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in 2013 analysed water samples from the surroundings around which the limestone quarries and cement plants operate in East Jaintia Hills. The results of the study exhibited elevated levels of pH, conductivity (EC), total dissolved solids (TDS), hardness, alkalinity, calcium and sulphate concentrations etc.
The study articulates that the direct contact of waste water from the cement plants coupled with the un-sustainable open cast mining has an adverse impact on the physico-chemical characteristics of the waters of the region. The water samples that were collected particularly from the areas where the cement plants were located were found to be highly polluted. Another recent study by NEHU highlights the horrendous and highly deteriorating quality of water in the Myntdu river. The Ecology Research Laboratory under the aegis of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Botany at NEHU conducted an analysis of the water quality of the Myntdu river in 2015 where the study attributed that one of the major causes of deteriorating water quality was the acid mine drainage (AMD) from multiple drains to the tributaries of the river. The results of the analysis revealed that high concentrations of metals were obtained from the tributaries as compared to the original source of the river. The disturbing aspect here is the fact that the results indicated pH values that exceeded the permissible limits as per the World Health Organization (WHO). There is also critical water shortage since abandoned coal mines pits and crevices percolate the surface water.
The State Government has promised intervention year after year ever since the rivers first changed colour which was almost a decade ago, but neither the Government nor any civic bodies are attempting to improve the quality of life for these affected residents. Mere inclusion of the river in the National Water Monitoring Program to undertake tests and so called visits to the affected regions time and again will not help in addressing the predicament. Half-baked attempts by the Government will only end up biting the government in the foot. Ad hoc measures such as those extended by the Public Health Engineering Department in providing water connections which are at most times dry, especially in the winter months are pointless. These water tankers when available are also very limited in number in contrast to the density of residents in these affected regions.
It is high time that the State Government intervenes and begins to comprehensively investigate the change of colour of the two rivers and take the assistance of competent third parties and relevant experts including inputs from the affected residents to conduct a detailed scrutiny of the contamination of the water bodies. Initiatives undertaken by members of Borghat-Jaliakhola Aquatic Life Welfare Association (BJALWA) earlier this year through public education and shared activities whose mission is to reconnect tribal communities with the Myntdu river and to kindle action and dialogue for restoration efforts is commendable.
An assessment to identify the major point sources of contamination and to understand the short term, medium term and long term behaviour of these point sources should be undertaken. This will help in aiding environmental management of the affected regions. The State Government should also engage regular consultations with the concerned stakeholders especially those affected directly and indirectly so as to ensure optimum exchange of knowledge which will aid in accelerating corrective measures that could bring about an improvement in the environmental conditions. A comprehensive and detailed river water quality assessment should also be undertaken across the entire state so as to safeguard both public health and vulnerable water resources.
The state government should also direct the cement companies to treat all the wastage before dumping it into the rivers. The State Government should direct the coal owners to undertake reclamation and sustainable closure of erstwhile coal mines and pits so as to restore the land either via backfilling, plantations, social forestry etc on the lines of coal mine reclamation practices undertaken by subsidiaries of Coal India Limited (CIL). In addition to the social responsibilities, cement companies should as a part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) address the environmental concerns in their business operations so as to achieve a balance of economic, environmental and social imperatives. The cement companies should try to incorporate integrated sustainable development plans into their business strategies and operations with an equally strong commitment to social and environmental responsibility on the lines of the Cement Sustainability Initiative (CSI) which is an initiative of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) as two cement companies from India are part of the initiative.
–By Jonathan Donald Syiemlieh
Associate Fellow (Centre for Resource and Environmental Governance) , Green Growth and Resource Efficiency Division, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)
The writer may be contacted at (Jonathan@teri.res.in)
Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons