Jul 22, 2008
Cherrapunjee in north east India which once enjoyed the reputation of the wettest place in the world is now witnessing irregular rainfall patterns. Global warming, deforestation and mining have affected the region's landscape and soil fertility thus causing damage to the local economy.
To most people outside Cherrapunjee, it is the place with the world’s 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.
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 tree’s tender leaves. 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 region’s 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.
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.
“Earlier the rain came on time. Now, we don’t know when it will come. It has become difficult to time the planting or harvesting of our crops and trees. The crops don’t 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.”
Loss of income
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 didn’t have to earlier. We got everything we needed from the land,” he says.
“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.”
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 that’s why it’s 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. 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 collector’s item.
“In the past five years, my income has fallen by 75 per cent. We live a hard life. 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.