Tambor Lyngdoh, the secretary of Hima, a traditional system of governance in Meghalaya, helped in the revival of water bodies by conducting cleaning drives, tree plantations, awareness programmes, and protection of sacred groves. Illustration by Tarique Aziz for Mongabay.

Some of the effects of these actions were visible. “For example, the roots of the trees helped prevent erosion of soil, particularly during the heavy rains in the monsoons, thereby reducing clogging of the ponds,” Lyngdoh said. Some other effects, though not visible, still made a difference. Born Lang said that when the saplings took root and grew taller, the villagers felt it was safer to use the pond water, “because the roots were now aiding in filtration of the wastewater that seeped into the ground from the houses.”

“It was not a sudden change that was visible, but over time, people could see that the aquatic life began thriving once again in their local ponds,” Lyngdoh said. A variety of migratory birds were seen and with fishing being avoided during the breeding season, life returned in the ponds. “The water became cooler, cleaner, and once again, people have started going to the pond every morning to collect water for their household purposes.” This, he added, was of particular significance to people in the smaller, more interior villages where the piped water supply was sometimes erratic due to pump-breakdowns. The pond water was the source that they would then often turn to.

Partha J. Das of Aaranyak, a non-governmental organisation that works on conservation in northeast India, said that these effects simply reinstate the fact that “any watershed, like sacred forests, help in maintaining water bodies and wetlands”. “It is a natural process. If an area has a good forest cover, it regenerates and enriches water bodies. Trees reduce the rate of soil erosion, thereby lowering sedimentation of ponds, which is a big problem in northeast India,” Das told Mongabay India.

Like an interlinked chain, a thriving wetland helps in maintaining the socio-economic health of the rural community. “Not only is it (pond/wetland) a source of water, but also nourishes the community with food, like fish and, if there is, aquatic fauna which they can even sell,” he added.

A channel of water coming from a water body inside the Mawphlang sacred grove. Photo from Tambor Lyngdoh.
A channel of water coming from a water body inside the Mawphlang sacred grove. Photo from Tambor Lyngdoh.

All part of the same chain

Another source of water that local communities in Meghalaya would often go to are the ponds in the sacred groves or sacred forests of the state. A sacred grove is a forest where trees hold special significance culturally. In Meghalaya’s sacred groves not only are these trees forbidden from being cut, nothing from the sacred grove, “not even a twig” is allowed to be taken out from there. It is believed that if done otherwise, a terrible curse befalls the desecrator. “In Meghalaya, we have 215 such sacred forests which are protected by social fencing,” Lyngdoh said, “The Mawphlang sacred grove is 700 years old; it is therefore an ancient genetic pool.” Most of the sacred groves have a number of water bodies — Mawphlang has 20 ponds, said Lyngdoh — from where the local villagers can take water for drinking and cooking. “The rule is that the water from the sacred groves must not be sold or used for commercial purposes,” he said.

Not all sacred groves are, however, as thriving as the Mawphlang sacred grove. Forest fires during the dry season, soil erosion and other such factors, including “erosion of traditional values”, according to the Meghalaya Biodiversity Board, have resulted in degradation of some sacred groves. Working on this aspect, Lyngdoh helped in reviving six sacred groves near different villages where re-planting of local tree species was done, widening the periphery of the forest. For his work, such as the regeneration of 5,000 hectares of open forests, Lyngdoh was also awarded the NatWest Earth Hero Award this year.

Awareness about simple things — for example, animals would not come to destroy farmlands if they have enough to forage in the forests — helped the cause. Lyngdoh also believes that reinstating belief in the sanctity of nature, be it the sacred groves or the water bodies, further helps in conservation. “The water from the sacred groves, for example, flows downstream and nourishes the rice fields, and in turn, us. It is sacred,” he said. Nature, after all, is a panacea, but only if you let it thrive and heal itself.

A drinking water pond maintained in Mawphlang. The sacred groves help replenish the water bodies in the region that villagers use for drinking and cooking. Photo from Tambor Lyngdoh.
A drinking water pond maintained in Mawphlang. The sacred groves help replenish the water bodies in the region that villagers use for drinking and cooking. Photo from Tambor Lyngdoh.

Illustration by Tarique Aziz, an illustrator and graphic designer from Assam, India. After working as an editorial illustrator and storyboard artist for several years, he is currently working independently from his home studio and enjoys working on everything from children’s books and comics to editorial illustration and brand identities.

Article published by Aditi
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