Wettest place in the world fears a shortage of water: Rain falls only in bucketfuls for the Khasi people of north-east India, writes Tim McGirk in Cherrapunji

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The Independent Online
IN Cherrapunji, once the wettest spot on earth where an average of 444 1/2 inches of rain sloshed down in a year, the tribesmen are now beginning to worry about a drought.

The Khasi hillfolk who inhabit Cherrapunji, in the north-east Indian state of Meghalaya, have only one word - slaup - for rain. That is because there is only one kind of downpour: heaven-bursting, apocalyptic. Instead, the tribes' vocabulary is enriched with words like hynniew-miat, describing rain lasting nine solid days and nights without let-up, or the really fierce, 14-day khadsaw-miat. Until the past few years, everybody in Cherrapunji scuttled through the rain like beetles, hunched under body- length carapaces of woven bamboo.

'Nowadays,' said Freeman Singh, Cherrapunji's tribal chieftain, the Syiem, his voice dripping with contempt, 'it rains so little that people are even using those folding umbrellas'. When the Syiem's royal ancestors died, their corpses were embalmed in orange- flavoured honey, often for months, until the funeral rites were ready, and everything dried off enough after the monsoons for a cremation. No longer do they use honey.

A drought is expected this winter in Cherrapunji. The heaviest rains are from June to September, when the monsoon sweeps in from the Indian Ocean across flat Bangladesh and then collides with the Khasi Hills. Cherrapunji is perched on the edge of vertical black cliffs, with magnificent cascades bursting out, falling thousands of feet on to jungle hills, which give way to the vast flood plains of Bangladesh, where an infinity of green islets float. The view, on those rare moments when the sun's rays are shafting through the clouds, is like witnessing the planet's creation.

Usually, it rains because the monsoon clouds are forced up the cliffs, and the effect is like cupping water in your hands and squeezing it out in a fountain. June is the wettest month, with a record 223in bucketing down in 1956. In the winter months, though, it seldom rains hard in Cherrapunji. Now there is danger of a water shortage.

The tribesmen and the meteorologists disagree over what has befallen Cherrapunji's micro-climate. The precipice where Cherrapunji sits was once covered with oak forests, and under this canopy there lived 250 varieties of orchids, 500 species of butterflies and a tenacious variety of leech known as 'the buffalo'. But over the past 30 years, the forests were chopped down, and Cherrapunji swelled from a village of 5,000 to 69,494 people. A cement factory spews out grey filth. The orange groves that brought the bees that made the honey for preserving the Khasi kings died off, and the bees left.

Deforestation has made it impossible to collect rainwater. 'When it rains in Cherrapunji,' lamented the tribal chieftain, 'it floods in Bangladesh.' One district official, Rebecca Suchiang, explained: 'Without the trees, the water just washes away. There are no rivers, only a few springs which are protected by the people in each locality.' In winter a jerry-can of water can cost up to 6 rupees, or a fifth of a day's wages.

The Syiem also insists that the deforestation is making it rain less in Cherrapunji. Indeed, when I visited, the sun shone for four hours. 'At most we'll get a three-day rain, but not a hynniew-miat and certainly not a khadsaw-miat,' he said. There are still pockets of oak forest untouched, which the Syiem explained were sacred to the Khasis. 'If anyone tried to cut down those trees, they would be cursed. Their heads would twist around on their necks,' he said matter-of-factly.

However, the weathermen at the Meteorological Centre in Guwahati, Assam, claim that in Cherrapunji it is raining as much as ever before. Consulting logbooks and weather charts, the meteorologists explained that in terms of average yearly rainfall, Mawsynram, 4 miles up the road from Cherrapunji and forested, now ranks as the wettest spot on earth, with a deluge of 468 inches a year, followed by Mt Waialeale in the Hawaiian islands with 456 inches. But during the monsoon months, the downpour in Cherrapunji is still on top.

Most people would be grateful for a little less rain, but not the Khasi. 'We don't care how many times we get wet. The rain is like a medicine for us,' said the Syiem. His boast is backed by doctors at the local clinic, who claim that the resilient tribesmen rarely get the sniffles, the sneezes or other rain- related maladies. This benefical side-effect was overlooked by the British settlers who first chose Cherrapunji as their Assam capital in 1832, but then retreated under the barrage of raindrops the size of large-calibre bullets to the drier climes of Shillong.

Asked if the incessant downpour had any effect on the Khasi character, the Syiem shook his head. Any murders? The Syiem told of a 1991 incident. A Cherrapunji girl was stricken with hysterics. Blame for her illness fell on a witchdoctor. 'The villagers stoned him to death,' said the Syiem. 'But that's not all. They cut him open and ate his liver. Then they burnt the rest of his body in the forest.'

'Were they Christians?' asked Ms Suchiang, who was also listening, aghast. She was a young Presbyterian from elsewhere in the state. Welsh missionaries had been hard at work at Cherrapunji since 1841, converting the Khasi tribesmen. 'Oh yes,' replied the Syiem. 'Good Christians.'