Buying water in Cherrapunji

The reason for the water shortage is that the town is so hilly that the downpour just drains off. Owing to heavy rains villagers cannot grow crops because five minutes after it rains, there isn’t any water to be seen. Plants rot and the soil needed to sow food is washed away, reports Dhananjaya Bhat

Cherrapunji in Meghalaya is the wettest place in the world, having 14,000 mm of rain every year. Yet it faces an acute scarcity of water
Cherrapunji in Meghalaya is the wettest place in the world, having 14,000 mm of rain every year. Yet it faces an acute scarcity of water

It’s hard to believe but even Cherrapunji suffers from water shortage. For nearly 150 years now, all schoolboys in the world have learnt that the 4,000 feet-high Cherrapunji in modern Meghalaya in India is the wettest place in the world, having as much as 14,000 mm ( 40 feet) of rain every year. But what is not known is that today there is such a shortage of water in this "wet desert" that its 10,000 inhabitants have to buy water, carted from the nearby plains at a cost of Rs 8 per bucket.

This shortage of water is alarming to locals as tourism at Cherrapunji (about 20,000 tourists annually) depends more on its fame for being the rainiest place in the world than Agra depends on the Taj Mahal for visitors.

The original name for this town was Sohra, pronounced as "Churra" by the British, before morphing into the present one. Believe it or not, but for 34 years from 1832 to 1866 Cherrapunji was the capital of the British province of Assam. During their stay, mystified by the incessant rains, the Indian Meterological Department decided to measure the rain, and the records for the last 147 years show that the annual average rainfall of Cherrapunji stands today at 10,871mm (428 inches). These are also the ‘record-making’ years, which contribute to records such as the stunning 26,470 mm (1,041 inches- 87 feet) of rainfall in 1860-1861.

In the 20th century the record rainfall was 24,553.3 mm (966.74 inches- 80.56 feet) in 1974 and was the highest recorded annual rainfall in any one place in any one year in the whole world for the century. The record for a single day’s downpour was on June 16, 1995, when it rained 1,563 mm in 24 hours (61.53 inches-5.12 feet). The heaviest downpours span approximately five long months, from May until September, with the other winter months being often literally rainless.

Meteorologists have analysed the reason for these heavy rains and have come to the conclusion that "the deep gorges around Cherrapunji help to funnel and converge the low-flying rain- bearing clouds over Cherrapunji. The upward thrusted rain clouds rapidly cool as they reach higher altitudes, condense and deluge Cherrapunji. The process of cooling is assisted by the flow of air from north and north-east to the south in the upper atmosphere from the Himalayan ranges."

But today the citizens at Cherrapunjee (10,000 population in 2001) are very much worried that this small town will lose its place as the wettest place on earth as in the past one decade the downpours have decreased year by year, probably due to global warming. Further, with modern methods of measuring, other places in the world have begun to dispute the record of Cherrapunji.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the heaviest average yearly rainfall (world) were: Cherrapunji—India (74-year avg) 450 in. (1,143 cm); and (U.S.): Mt. Waialeale, Kauai, Hawaii (32-year avg), 460 in. (1,168 cm). To add to the worries of locals, the small village of Mawsynram within 5 km of Cherrapunji has snatched away the heaviest annual rainfall record, with 16,090 mm (644 inches- 53 feet and eight inches) of rainfall in 1998 .

The Cherrapunjians are not worried about Mawsynram, as they point out that the measurements taken in 1998 were not scientifically accurate, as a part-time peon of Meghalaya Public Works Department posted there was doing the measurement. At Cherrapunji there is a modern meteorological laboratory to measure the rain with trained scientists.

As for Mount Waialeale in the US, they dismiss the record as the rainfall in the Indian town (400 km inland from the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean) is measured to cover about 100 to 200 square km. Compare this to the heavy rainfall area of only 5 square km of Mount Weialeale in Hawaii (US) in the middle of ocean.

For their daily water problems, the scientists have an explanation for this strange anomaly. They point out that the town is so hilly that the downpour just drains off.

During some of these months the rain is so heavy that villagers cannot grow crops. Five minutes after it rains, there isn’t any water to be seen. Plants rot in the ground and the soil needed to sow food is washed away. A joint team of Indian and Polish metereologists on a joint mission visited the town recently to study and find ways to restore the degrading geo-ecosystems of Cherrapunji.

Another factor for the decrease of rains is that ever since Meghalaya became a separate state in 1972, there has been a rise in deforestation around the rainy town as per the convener of the Cherrapunji Soil Research Society.

Only rain water harvesting can sort out the problems of the world’s wettest town . Scientists point out the example of Jaisalmer, one of the driest towns in India in Rajasthan, with rainfall levels as little as 100 mm of water per year, where it was found that if you harvest water on just one hectare of land, you have captured as much as one million litres of water — enough to meet drinking and cooking water needs of 182 people at 15 litres per day for one year.

If you create in Cherrapunji with 14,000 mm annual rainfall a catchment area totalling 100 hectares on rooftops of each house, you can harvest at least 100 million litres of rain water per year, and thus save the wettest town in the world the ignominy of having to import water from the plains. It remains to be seen whether Cherrapunjians will have the wisdom be able to sort out their water problems . — MF