Ignored realities: Downstream impacts of Mapithel dam

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Jiten Yumnam
Manipur of late, has seen several development processes targeting the land and natural resources of Manipur. Many of these development processes, both policies and specific projects are afflicted with larger social and environment challenges apart from longstanding and intergenerational impacts. In most situations, many of the impacts remain neglected or deliberately ignored. The downstream impacts of Mapithel dam is also one of the most neglected impacts of a major development projects in Manipur.

Ever since the Government of Manipur commenced the blocking of Thoubal River and filling up of Mapithel dam reservoir from January 2015, various indigenous communities in both upstream and downstream areas of Mapithel dam reels in multifaceted impacts of the Dam. The construction of Mapithel dam commenced in 1990 after the Planning Commission of India approved the project in 1980. The dam envisaged to generate 7.5 MW of power and to provide water for Imphal Town and irrigation waters in Thoubal and Imphal East Districts of Manipur. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) along with the Government of India is currently funding a portion of the Imphal Water Supply Augmentation Project (IWSP) to draw water from Mapithel Dam and to provide water for Imphal Town.

The dam has severely affected the livelihood and the availability and accessibility of water. The Thoubal River is the main source of water and livelihood for villages in the downstream areas through fishing, agriculture along the banks of Thoubal River and collection of sand and stone. The primary means of sustenance of the downstream villagers is fishing and small-scale sand and stone mining from the river bed usually brought down by the river. The blocking of the Thoubal River has disturbed the water flow, lead to reduced flow and drying up of the river bed. The sand and stone brought down by the Thoubal River are now deposited in the dam reservoir, rendering the river bed in downstream areas deprived of basic sand to ensure its flow as a river and the sustenance of the agriculture land along its banks. This led to impoverishment of communities depending on the river.
The availability of fish such as Sareng Khoi, Ngaril, Ngatin etc have diminished and people can no longer fish and depend on the River for survival. The muddiness and contamination of water further hindered the survival of remaining fishes as well. Another impact is on agriculture land, both due to limited water release during lean season and unpredictable high release of water in monsoon period, which led to high level of erosion of river banks, destroying cultivable land and plantations etc. The unpredictable and fluctuating water release in downstream areas, for instance, in Leirongthel Village during monsoon, has swept away sand collected through arduous efforts by women.

A key concern of Mapithel dam is the difficulty to access clean and safe drinking water, leading to health concerns. The impoundment of water in Mapithel dam reservoir has led to reduced flow of Thoubal River and this has affected the accessibility and availability of water in downstream villages. The water trickling down from the dam along the Thoubal River is muddy and highly contaminated. Villagers are now surviving on piped water from perennial spring of neighboring communities like Phayang and Maphou Villages with payment of annual tax. Villagers even have to buy water for water requirements basic needs. During the lean season, villagers hired excavators to bore hole at the river bed for collect ground water. Water become filthy, decayed, and unfit to use.

The impoundment of water in the Mapithel dam reservoir and the decomposition of forest and other organic materials trapped in the reservoir has led to multiple health impacts. Many of the women who went to the River for collection of water and for limited sand and stone collection are infected with multiple water borne diseases, especially skin diseases, such as ring worm infection, chicken pox etc, due to contaminated and polluted water. Skin diseases, eye sore, upset stomach and other sanitary related problems are very high in the Tumukhong Village. Children relying on the water for bathing and drinking are also affected with water borne disease. Tumukhong Villagers are affected with water borne diseases from their livelihood dependence on Thoubal River and the matter is also reported widely by the media in October 2017.

The Government of Manipur has failed to conduct a downstream impact assessment, on the livelihood of people depending on the river and also on the ecology and environment of the River etc. The Government of Manipur has so far failed to formulate any alternative arrangement to support the livelihood of villagers in the downstream areas to ensure their survival.

The changing situation which drastically worsened their economy and family sustenance, has given a dead blow in the support of children education. Due to livelihood difficulties and impoverishment, many families are finding it difficult to support their children’s education. Number of children school drop-outs has been increased. Villagers who once were able to support their children’s education from multiple and diversified economic activities, such as seasonal agriculture, fishing and collection of sand and stone from Thoubal River, are severely affected as the blocking of Thoubal River.

Another serious risk that instilled fear among the residents of the downstream portion of Thoubal River is the strong possibility of dam break as many villagers are apprehensive of the quality of the construction of the main dam. Wreckage to the dam reservoir will bring catastrophe to Tumukhong and other villages in the downstream region in no time. The water discharge from Mapithel dam spillway also hits Tumukhong village, which lead to further erosion of land and soil in the village. The villagers of Tumukhong Village have also faced untold nuisance due to regular vehicular movements within the village which gives negative impact to the health of the villagers.

Villagers residing in immediate downstream and zero kilometer of the dam, such as Tumukhong are in constant fear of dam break and hence, villagers should be resettled to safer grounds to ease the fears, tensions and uncertainty of possible dam break. The substandard quality maintenance during the reservoir construction as witnessed by the villagers and the consequent case of the dam leakage during 2015 compelling the villagers to flee for safety. The constant psychological fear and insecurity afflicted by the structure has created anxieties and psychological pathologies in the village. There was recurrent breakdown of the portion of spillway of the dam, which instill much fear among the downstream villagers. With recurrent floods and water release from the dam reservoir, the accumulation of earth from the broken spillway will lead to diversion of water thus flowing and flooding the downstream villagers. At least 7-8 portions of leakages were detected at the immediate back wall of the dam.

The plan to commission the Mapithel dam, despite the objection of communities affected by Mapithel dam as also reported lately on 8th October 2017 is a matter of serious concern for us as the longstanding concerns and demands of downstream affected communities for our alternative livelihood, survival and resettlement is still pending and incomplete. There is much worry if the Mapithel dam will ever function, given the extensive delays and the non-completion of much of the key infrastructure of the dam. The construction of water supply infrastructure is just underway, despite the fact that the blockade of Thoubal River had commenced much earlier. Thus, it is still questionable as how many months or years are will it take to reach safe drinking water to Imphal city.

The UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, Mr. James Anaya had expressed concerns with the Government of India on impacts of Mapithel dam in 2009. The Government of India has failed to implement the recommendations forwarded by the UN SR on Mapithel dam, primarily to respect indigenous peoples’ rights and to consider their demands for rights and justice.

The Government of Manipur must fully acknowledge the multifaceted impacts of Mapithel dam on communities in the downstream areas, especially on the survival threat and livelihood challenges. The government should provide adequate livelihood support for families of each village affected by Mapithel dam in downstream areas, viz, Tumukhong, Itham, Moirangpurel, Laikhong, Nongpok Keithelmanbi, Nungbrang, Lairongthel etc and should resettle communities affected by Mapithel dam in downstream areas, especially those located in immediate downstream and zero point of Mapithel dam, such as Tumukhong village. A clear rehabilitation and resettlement of affected communities in downstream areas need be framed based on a detailed review of Mapithel dam. The Mapithel dam should not be commissioned and the Thoubal River should be allowed to flow free till the impacts, concerns and the demands of affected communities are fully responded to.

(The writer can be reached at mangangmacha@gmail.com)

Source: The Sangai Express

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