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Last Updated: Monday, 28 April, 2003, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
World's wettest area dries up
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC correspondent in Calcutta

One of the world's wettest places is suffering from a shortage of water.

Villagers carrying water from the plains (Picture courtesy Eastern Projections)
Villagers have to carry water from the plains

The Khasi Hills, in a remote part of north-east India, usually experience torrential rains.

Famously, the area once recorded more than 1,000 inches (2,540 centimetres) of rain in just one year - a global record.

But villagers in the region, which was named after the rain-filled clouds that supplied the waterfalls and streams, now have to bring water from other areas.

Increases in pollution and deforestation have been blamed for the environmental changes.

'Home of the Clouds'

Tourists come here to see rain, not sun and if there are no rains, no clouds, why should the tourists come?
John Nongrem
cafe owner

When the Khasi Hills were carved out from Assam in 1972 and a separate state created, India had no problem deciding what to name the new state.

Through an act of parliament it was promptly named Meghalaya, which means "Home of the Clouds" in Sanskrit and Hindi.

Meghalaya enjoys the distinction of having two of the world's wettest places: Cherrapunji and Mawsynram. But Cherrapunji is drying up.

Cherrapunji residents are worried because the small town and the villages around it have received less and less rain over the years during monsoon.

During winter, the rains almost stop and the springs dry up.

Long rows of trucks loaded with drums of water can be seen travelling up to Cherrapunji from the plains.

Some tankers, normally in the business of carrying oil, load up with water as well and enjoy huge success in selling supplies in Cherrapunji.

"We buy a bucket of water for six or seven rupees during the winter. The city's water supply collapses because there is hardly any water left in the soil of Cherrapunji that can be pumped out," says Julia Kharkhongor, a teacher with one of the town's leading schools.

When I reached Cherrapunji earlier this month, I was shocked to find no rain or clouds anywhere on the way.

Ten years ago, when my wife and I first visited Cherrapunji in early summer to escape the heat of the Assam plains, we drove on the road that gradually rises to the town through a picturesque landscape.

We drove above the clouds that were clinging to the mountains through which the road passed. And it was raining.

Less rain

This time, there was bright sunshine and the umbrellas we carried in our cars were not needed.

Ever since Meghalaya became a separate state, there has been a rise in deforestation
Ba Mark West

SC Sahu, deputy director of the Central Meteorological Department in Meghalaya's capital, Shillong, says Cherrapunji received less rain in the whole of 2001 - only 363 inches (922 cm) - than it got in just one month in 1861.

He said: "In July 1861 alone, Cherrapunji had 366 inches of rain. Between August 1860 and July 1861, Cherrapunji got a record 1,042 inches of rain - a world record. But now the annual rainfall there has sharply fallen to less than a third of that."

Mr Sahu blames it on the deforestation in the area and environmentalists agree.

"Ever since Meghalaya became a separate state, there has been a rise in deforestation," says Ba Mark West, convenor of the Cherrapunji Soil Research Society.

"Tree felling is rampant and the loss of forest cover around Cherrapunji is more serious than ever before," he says.

In 1960, Cherrapunji was still a town of just 7,000 people.

Now, there are 15 times that number and a cement plant at Mamlukcherra, a few kilometres away, was built 20 years ago.


Waterfalls at Nokalikai (Picture courtesy Eastern Projections)
There are fears even the waterfalls may run dry

"The cement plant polluted the environment and added to the population pressure in the area. And if there are more people, the pressure on the forests will increase," says Mr West.

The owner of a small cafe at Cherrapunji, John Nongrem, is worried that without rain tourists will stop coming.

"Tourists come here to see rain, not sun and if there are no rains, no clouds, why should the tourists come?" he asks.

However, tourists may appreciate the fact that the waterfalls at Nokalikai are more clearly visible to the tourist from Nongrem's cafe on the hilltop.

It will remain a stunning view unless it, too, dries up in the next few decades.

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