Clouds of misery

Print edition : August 01, 2008

The worlds wettest place, Cherrapunjee, now does not get regular rains and its agricultural economy is in great danger.

in Cherrapunjee

Sunset over the Khasi hills, near Cherrapunjee town. The hills are the first barrier in the way of the monsoon winds after they blow over the Bay of Bengal and the plains of Bangladesh.-PICTURES: DIONNE BUNSHA

TO most people outside Cherrapunjee, it is the place with the worlds highest rainfall. But for the people who live here, it is the land of kwai.

Kwai is betel nut, and the kwai tree provides sustenance to the local Khasis in more ways than one. Everyone here chews betel nut, enveloped in betel leaf with a dab of white lime paste. Any house one visits, one is greeted by posters of Jesus Christ on the walls and a tray of kwai on the floor. It is an intrinsic part of the rich, sometimes eccentric, folklore of the Khasi hills in Meghalaya.

If you ask a Khasi the distance from one village to the next, he will estimate it not by minutes, but by the number of kwais you eat on the journey, jokes Denis P. Rayen, owner of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort in Laitkynsew village. No wonder kwai is the major cash crop in this valley of clouds, carpeted with thick tropical forests. Kwai plantations have sustained families for generations.

THE NOH KOHLI falls in Cherrapunjee, fed by the heavy rainfall.-

But now, the kwai tree is losing its juice. The yield per tree is falling, says Bud Sing Bynnud, a farmer from Tyrna village, 14 kilometres downslope from Cherrapunjee town. A decade earlier, we got 200 betel nuts from four trees. Now, we get only 100. With each passing year, the yield is declining. The early rains in March destroy the kwai trees tender leaves. Earlier, it never rained much in March, but now everything is changing. The rains are not regular.

If there is one thing that was regular in Cherrapunjee, it was the rains. The south-west monsoon supports the regions thick tropical forests and small farms with their crops of pepper, betel nut, bay leaf, mustard and vegetables. But of late, the changes in the timing of the rains and the pattern of rainfall have harmed crops in villages around Cherrapunjee.

The original Khasi name for the town is Sohra. The British, who annexed this region in the 1830s, called it Cherrapunjee. Alarmed by the torrential rainfall here, the Catholic Mission in the region started measuring it. That is how Cherrapunjee became famous as the wettest place on the earth and how the colonial name stuck. The State government recently changed the towns name to Sohra officially. But it has not been able to erase the distinct colonial influence. Most Khasis are Christian, and the Khasi language is written in the Roman script. The log-cabin-style houses with their lace curtains, the churches, the tartan wraps that the women wear are all remnants of the British Raj. Walk through a village and you will hear rock music blaring from the small houses. The Khasis have a matrilineal culture, so women here are relatively empowered. The culture is very different from the rest of India.

KWAI TREES IN Tyrna, once an orange-growing area. It has only a few orange trees left.-

Cherrapunjee gets such heavy rainfall the record is 11,952 mm a year because of the Khasi hills. The Khasi hills are the first barrier in the way of the monsoon winds after they blow over the Bay of Bengal and the plains of Bangladesh. When these moisture-laden winds hit the steep slopes and valleys in the Khasi hills, they ascend rapidly, forming huge clouds. (That is how Meghalaya got its name, which means the Land of Clouds.)

Many villages along the slopes are actually engulfed by clouds. During the peak monsoon season (June to September), the skies unburden sheets of water. Mobility is restricted. Nothing is spared. The humidity destroys everything books, photographs, clothes, and so on. It can get so damp that water condenses into droplets on your face. Some days, it rains more than 500 mm, which means that we can get almost as much rainfall in a day as Paris gets in a year [642 mm], says Rayen.

And yet, Sohra has an acute water shortage. It has been called a wet desert. People here have to walk miles for water. Deforestation and mining have made the town, situated on a limestone-rich plateau, bare. The heavy rainwater flows rapidly down the steep slopes of the Khasi mountains into Bangladesh (40 km from Cherrapunjee). The strong flow has eroded soil fertility, making it difficult to revive agriculture.

Most people in Sohra earn a daily wage either through trade or by working in the limestone and charcoal quarries along the hill slopes. Sohra is mainly a market town, where people from surrounding villages converge twice a week to sell their produce. But now supplies from the villages are dwindling. Harvests are destroyed by unseasonal rains.

It rains even before the pre-monsoon showers, normally in April and May. We must harvest before these showers. With the rains arriving early, we lose part of the harvest. The flowers and fruits or nuts get damaged or fall off the tree. Bay leaves get wet and are destroyed, says Bud Sing Bynnud.

CLEARING BAY LEAVES destroyed by pre-monsoon showers. The monsoon pattern has changed, according to local people.-

Earlier the rain came on time. Now, we dont know when it will come. It has become difficult to time the planting or harvesting of our crops and trees. The crops dont grow well and we get less than half the quantity we got around 10 years ago, says the elderly Dhesto Sawian from Tyrna village. Now, we get all four seasons in one day. You never know what to expect. It may be hot in the day and then suddenly cold or raining in the afternoon. Winters are getting warmer too. The unpredictable climate has also made life more insecure for people like Dhesto. At my age, I have to go for daily-wage work in summer. I started doing so only five years ago. I didnt have to earlier. We got everything we needed from the land.

The pattern of rainfall is changing. Now, we have at least 10 days in a year when the rainfall is more than 300 mm. Earlier, the average would be just below 100 mm, very rarely would it get higher. In 2007, there was 21.6 mm in March, but we got 570 mm in March 2008. The average over 35 years is 320 mm. We are seeing more extreme weather conditions, says Rayen. We may have lost the cooling effect of trees. These thick forests cool the clouds and bring rain. But the forests have been cut; maybe thats why its not cooling as much.

Though the average annual rainfall remains the same, the yearly fluctuations are greater, says Surendra Singh from the North East Hill University in Shillong, who has studied weather data from 1903 to 1999. In the period 1903-1959, there was a 15 mm per year increase in average rainfall. But during 1966-1999, the increase was much higher 43.5 mm, he says. There are two possible reasons for this fluctuation. One, the changes occurring due to global warming. Two, local deforestation due to quarrying, mining and jhum [slash and burn] cultivation. It has affected the landscape, environment and economy of this region.

Around 20 years ago, the roads leading to Laitkynsew were lined with people selling oranges. This region was known for its oranges. Now, no one sells oranges and you rarely spot an orange, says Joy Rayen, co-owner of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, who was born and brought up in the village. Around 30 years ago, there was a disease that killed all the orange trees. After that, we have not been able to grow oranges, no matter how many times we tried. The oranges from our villages were famous in the market for being sweet and plentiful. Now, we have to buy oranges from the market. I still have around 10 trees, but none of them gives any fruit. Citrus fruits normally ripen in October, but now they fall in July or August before they ripen, says Kojen Wansai, headman of Lum Soh Phie village. Yet, he is lucky to have the last few orange trees growing in his yard. They are now a collectors item.

A COAL MINE close to the town. The slopes of the Khasi hills have been stripped bare by logging and mining.-

In the past five years, my income has fallen by 75 per cent. We live a hard life. We cant spend on many things that we could earlier. Even in the field, I cant plant much, only what I can afford and only as much as I can manage to do on my own. Earlier, we could afford to hire daily labourers to work in our farms. Ten years ago, I could plant 1,000 kwai trees. Now, I have only 200. I had to shift my children out of the school in Sohra because I could not afford the fees there, says Bhumsing Dkhar from Sohsarat village.

For the farmers in Cherrapunjee, sheets of rain are not enough; rains also have to arrive at the right time. When the rains let them down, where can they turn? They can only look to the skies for mercy.

(This article is part of a series on the impact of climate change in India funded by a research grant from The Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment.)

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