Page last updated at 00:18 GMT, Sunday, 20 December 2009

India's wettest place 'lacks water'

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Cherrapunji

Cherrapunji billboard
Cherrapunji was once the wettest place on earth (Photos: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

Once the world's wettest places, Cherrapunji is getting up to 20% less rain every year - and is suffering water shortages.

Residents say their heavenly abode in the clouds is hotter and drier than ever before - and they blame it on global warming.

Cherrapunji - or Sohra in the local Khasi language - is located in the West Khasi Hills of India's north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

"Never were there very big forests around Cherrapunji and many of those that are there are sacred to us," says Millergrace Symlieh, a senior member of Sohra Science Society.

"We never cut a branch in these sacred forests. So you cannot say this adverse weather change is our creation. We are affected by what's happening all over the world," he told the BBC.

"This hot weather and less rain here is not due to huge deforestation or massive industrialisation," says Mr Symlieh. "We only have a cement plant near here."

Water shortage

Cherrapunji's weather office says the average annual rainfall in the town has dropped by about 20% in the last five years - though the trend started a decade ago.

"It is basically since 2005 that we are often getting 8,000mm-9,000mm of rain in Cherrapunji annually - against the normal average of 11,000mm," says one of the office's staff, Amit Chaudhuri.

But the town has been getting drier due to erratic rain since the beginning of the decade, Mr Chaudhuri says.

Water crisis in Cherrapunji
People in the area say there is a water shortage now

The immediate impact is a water shortage in what was once the world's wettest area, especially during winters.

Longer summers and shorter winters mean much more heat and less moisture in the air.

On a recent hot morning, I could see scores of trucks climbing up to Cherrapunji from the neighbouring plains, loaded with large containers of water.

They make quick money by selling water to the residents, whose numbers have risen sharply.

From 7,000 people in 1961, Cherrapunji's population has grown to 15 times that size.

So less rain means water scarcity for the town's growing population.

It was such a contrast to the 1990s when I used to visit Cherrapunji quite often.

Then, it was fun driving through thick clouds on hill roads which were often dangerous because of poor visibility.

"We have to purchase water here in the winter in a place where there was so much rain until recently," says local teacher Ila Manora Nongbri. "We never learnt water harvesting but we don't have a choice now."

Her sister Mimi complained that rainfall was now very erratic.

"We get rains suddenly when we don't expect them. And we don't get rain when we expect it. Also it does not rain all over any more. Rain is getting localised even within Cherrapunji," Mimi told the BBC.

Tourism affected

In 1861, Cherrapunji created a world record with 22,987mm of rainfall in a year.

"That will never happen again, though we still get much rain during the monsoon. But earlier, we got rains here even during the winters and that is not happening any more," says Ila Manora Nongbri.

When a separate state was created from the Khasi Hills in 1972, India promptly named it Meghalaya - literally "Home of the clouds" in Sanskrit and Hindi.

Mr Lyngdoh
Mr Lyngdoh says the number of tourists is falling

Meghalaya enjoys the distinction of having two of the world's wettest places: Cherrapunji and Mawsynram, which gets about 12,000mm of rain annually.

Mawsynram is now the wetter of the two - but both places are getting less rain and Cherrapunji is drying up faster.

That may also affect tourism in the town.

"We have a thriving tourist traffic here but it is beginning to fall. Specially the number of foreign tourists is getting less and less," says Banzer Cooper Lyngdoh, an officer with Meghalaya tourism in Cherrapunji.

"Tourists come here to see the rain and clouds, so why should they come at all if it is hot and sunny?" Mr Lyngdoh asked.

Shillong, Meghalaya's capital and known as the "Scotland of the East", is clubbed with Cherrapunji on most tour packages offered for north-east India.

But both places are getting hotter - with average daytime temperatures rising by 2C-3C in the summer and somewhat less in the winter.

"And summers are much longer, stretching into November," says Ila Manora Nongbri.

At this rate, environmentalists fear the waterfalls around Cherrapunji, a major tourist attraction, may also start to dry up.

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