Deep in the dense tropical forests of north-east India lives a community of 200 Khasi people. Few outsiders enter this remote area, which is largely cut off from the rest of the state of Meghalaya by dense jungle.
In 2001, a Scientific Exploration Society reconnaissance party visited Meghalaya and learned that people in the isolated village of Riangmaw had to bring drinking water up from a ravine. This required a tiring climb, carrying heavy pots up treacherously slippery slopes. The Scientific Exploration Society agreed to mount an expedition to Riangmaw to establish a water supply system.
Some significant obstacles to the proposed work were encountered almost immediately – no access road, no airstrip, torrential monsoon rain and the presence of well-armed insurgents from nearby Bhutan. Nonetheless, for two years the Society worked with state officials and conservationists to overcome these obstacles and as soon as the 2003 monsoon ended in November the Society dispatched a 14-strong expedition to the area. Colonel John Blashford-Snell, the Society’s Chairman, led the team which included conservationist Mike Nampui and two engineers. A solar-powered water supply system was obtained through sponsorship by Just a Drop.
“The jeep track would have been a challenge for any experienced rally driver,” said Susan McCormack, a prison governor from Portland. It took 36 hours to reach Riangmaw as robust but ancient Indian jeeps bounced and revved their way through rivers and up and down steep ravines. Often it was only with everyone pushing and pulling that the incredible little cars got through. A three ton truck carrying the water supply equipment became stuck in a river and was only extracted by creating a tow rope of twisted vines.
Civil engineer John Thackray of Christchurch set to work on installing the water system and Dr John Davies of Truro, one of Britain’s most experienced expedition doctors, carried out a nutritional survey (assisted by nurse Sarah Royal of Bath and podiatrist Marie Murphy of Notting Hill). In no time, dentists Peter Fletcher-Jones of Putney and William Murphy of Stratford-upon-Avon had a queue of patients. North Dorset youth worker Sue Craxton concentrated on studying the culture of the people while assisting retired teacher Shirley Critchley of Poole with a community aid programme.
Spectacles and children’s clothing had been brought in by Shirley and educational material was provided for the village school. Suffolk farmer, Sir Charles Blois examined the agriculture and used his practical experience of water supply systems to good effect. “I found they were not making the best use of the land and their crops were ravaged by wild pig and elephant,” he said. “A tiger ate their last cow shortly before we arrived!” Indeed the forest teemed with animals, but due to the density of the vegetation it was only possible to catalogue them by their tracks. “We could hear elephants trumpeting all around us,” said Patrick Evans of Falmouth; “There seemed to be no shortage of big cats.”
After 10 days at Riangmaw, the solar powered water supply was turned on and to everyone’s delight clean water flowed into the village.
“It was quite a triumph to get all the equipment to this remote site,” said John Edwards of Jersey, who lives in India and organised the logistics.
To celebrate, the grateful Khasis danced and sang and the expedition did the Hokey Cokey in return. The villagers apologised, quite unnecessarily, for having nothing much to give the expeditionary, but pressed oranges, rice wine and bamboo handicrafts on them.
“We were the first foreign expedition to Riangmaw” said Shirley Critchley. “It was a unique experience to be with such lovely people in this little corner of Eden. We achieved our aim and hopefully have made their lives easier.”
Date of Project: October 2001
Beneficiaries: 1,360 (480 families)