Developmental intervention and Threats to the Loktak

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By RK Ranjan Singh

Loktak Pat (pat=lake) is the largest natural freshwater lake in the northeastern region of India. It plays a vital role in terms of ecological dynamism, socio-economic sustainability, cultural and habitats security of the region. This natural wetland is still one of the world’s most productive ecosystems. The Lake support valuable biodiversity, including habitat diversity or heterogeneity. On account of its biodiversity it was designated as Wetland of International Importance under Ramsar Convention in 1990. And Phumdi (floating mats of soil and vegetation) is a unique ecosystem component of the Lake. There are six habitat patches of the Loktak Lake covering an area of about 289 Km. Size of the lake varies according to the season, often reaching the length of 35 km and breadth of 13 km during the rainy season. Thanga, Karang, Ithing and Sendra are the prominent islands in the lake. It is a crucial breeding ground of a number of migratory fishes from the Irrawady-Chindwin river system and continues to be vital as a fish habitat. The lake also supports a significant population of resident and migratory waterfowls.

Loktak Lake as the mirror of Manipur

Ballad singers of Manipur often describe the Loktak Lake as the mirror of Manipur. It has different connotations. It may simply mean that its water surface looks like a mirror. In another sense it highlights the lake’s association with the history of Manipur. It is a mirror reflecting the history of Manipur and the changes in the society down the ages. The Loktak Lake still stands as a testimony of the bygone era when the valley was completely submerged under water.

Loklak Lake is a living heritage-sustaining the dynamics of intangible cultural heritage of both the hill and valley people of Manipur. This intangible cultural heritage of Loktak, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. Among them, the incarnation of seven legendary stories, Yaithing Konu and Khuyol Haoba, Khamba and Thoibi etc. were created in and around the Loktak Lake and the then Moirang Principality. Moirang was the capital of an independent principality of the same name as late as the middle of eighteenth century.

Genesis and Functioning of the Loktak Pat

The formation of Loktak Lake has an inseparable link with the geo-ecological evolution of the Manipur Valley. Available literature, legends, historical evidence and as well as geomorphic studies indicate that the Valley of Manipur was formed in course of a geological time scale with its fluvio-lacustrine origin. Eminent paleo-botanist like Dr. Vishnu Mitra expresses the view that the Lake was formed during the middle of the last Glacial Era, approximately 25,000 years ago.

However, the genesis of the Loktak Lake seems to be caused by tectonic activities resulting in the upliftment of the Manipur River bed, a few meters after the confluence of the Chakpi River  near Serou. The particular area where the tectonic upliftment occurred is popularly known as Sugnu Hump (Sugnu Nungthong). The emergence of Sugnu Hump affected not only the then normal flow of the Manipur River but also contributed to the development of a delicate balance between the normal rate of erosion of the river and the depth of the river bed. Consequently, a huge sheet of water was accumulated and spread all over the valley of Manipur. But in due course of time, the level of the impounded water receded and silted, then gradually formed the habitable valleys with a number of lakes formed all over the present valley of Manipur. From this point of view the Loktak Lake is part and parcel of the Manipur River drainage system. The drainage system of Manipur River consist of major tributaries namely the Iril River and the Thoubal River, the Sekmaijing, the Khuga and the Chakpi River.

On the interfluves areas of these tributaries, there were many lakes and wetlands supporting the regime of the Manipur River system. These wetlands and lakes of the interfluves areas served as natural reservoirs for the excess monsoon rainwater of the respective tributaries. Loktak Lake itself is a major temporary water reservoir of the Manipur River. During monsoon, all the rain water from different watershed areas of the tributaries gets collected at the Manipur River and then naturally drained towards the southern side of the valley, where the Loktak and other sister wetlands were located. The rain water which used to get impounded by the Sugnu Hump and also the torrential consequent stream of the Chakpi River receded upwards up to the point of Khordak Echil of the Manipur River where the Khordak Echil allowed its inflow into the Loktak. The same Khordak Channel allowed the drainage of water from the Loktak Lake to the Manipur River during the lean seasons through Khordak. Thus, Khordak acted as both the inlet and outlet waterways to maintain the unique eco-system of the Loktak Lake. In the meantime another channel known as Ungamed drains out the excess water of the Loktak particularly from the Keibul Lamjao, the floating National Park.

Loktak: Lake or a Wetland?

Lake and wetland are not synonymous. A lake is a wetland but a wetland is not necessarily a lake. To continue to subscribe to the old nomenclature, Loktak Lake, leads us into believing that it is a mere reservoir while ignoring certain crucial features of this particular wetland. Loktak is more than a lake. It is a wetland system of remarkable complexity and characteristics. From the central core of clear water around Thanga-Karang Island hillocks, Loktak extends into the Phumdi-Land of Keibul Lamjao, the marshy reaches northwards, the phenomenal Khordak Channel, interconnecting Pat  systems to the East and South-Eastwards, and the through linkages with seasonally flowing and permanent natural and human-made rivers, streams and waterways to a whole wetland system that extended over much of the Manipur Valley areas, and to the catchment areas lying all around the mountain ranges of the state.

The Lake covers a productive ecosystem and supports valuable biodiversity. More than 230 species of aquatic macrophytes, 425 species of animals and thousands of avifaunal species are recorded to be found in the Lake. Loktak is home to the engendered Sangai or the brow-antlered deer. Further, Loktak Pat acts as catalytic agent of the whole range of natural eco-system in the region and also allows transmitting various wavelengths of socio-politico-economic and cultural activities in the region. Further, the Loktak Lake regulates the micro-climatic condition in the state.

Developmental Intervention and Threat to the Loktak

The natural system of Loktak Pat has been adversely altered by so called “developmental” activities. The root-cause and threat of the degradation of the Loktak ecosystem and its natural heritages are due to the implementation of Loktak Hydropower Project by the National Hydro-Electric Project Co-operation (NHPC). At the initial stage of the implementation of the project, the authority bluffed the people of Manipur by giving promises like:

i) the project will reclaim 60,000 hectares of land in and around the vicinity of the Loktak Pat and will be distributed to the landless people of the State;

ii) another 40,000 hectares of land will be lift irrigated for double cropping and triple cropping so that food production in the state will be surplus and

iii) after the commissioning of the project per unit consumption of energy will be provided to the people of Manipur at the rate below 10 paisa per unit along with the growth of unpolluted industries in the State.

These turned out to be false promises. After the commissioning of the Loktak Hydro Electric Project a huge area of cultivable land around the Loktak has been under inundated water.

Construction of Ithai Barrage as a component of the Loktak Hydro Electric Project across the Manipur River has led to:

1. Changes in hydrological regimes thereby affecting ecological processes and functions of the wetland. Avifaunal populations of both resident as well as the migratory have been drastically reduced.

2. Inundation of agricultural lands and displacement of people from flooded areas; and loss of native fish species, endemic Tauthabee paddy variety; decrease in the thickness of phumdis in the Keibul Lamjao National Park thereby threatening the survival of Sangai. Over and above, about 4 lakh fishing communities were deprived of their primary occupation based on the Lake.

3. Natural flow of the Ungamel has been completely altered to the opposite direction and the Khordak Channel allows only inflow with huge debris to the Loktak and thereby causing excessive siltation and swallowing of LakeBottom. It is estimated that more than 4.4 lakh cu.m of silt sediments is being deposited into the Loktak every year.

4. Distortion of natural water system of the Loktak and fast eutrophication process in the water permits excessive growth of biomass and thereby the open water surface area has been reduced and most of the surface area is covered by vegetation. The decomposition of vegetation may accumulate more methane gas and emission to the atmosphere may add to the process of climate change.

(The author can be reached at <[email protected]>)

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