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Tourism a major ecological concern in Ladakh

Aug 24, 2009

Tourism is flourishing and providing livelihood opportunities to the people of Ladakh but is also playing havoc with its fragile eco-system, writes Shobha S.V. To protect the spectacular landscape of this region in Jammu and Kashmir, tourism needs to go green.

Leh, Ladakh: India's only cold desert, is one of the hottest tourist destinations in the subcontinent today. Sample this: As many as 75,000 tourists visited this scenic place Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) last year – a 100% increase in the last five years (around 35,091 tourists came in 2004).


This is indeed a meteoric rise from the time the spectacular landscape was first thrown open to tourists in 1974.

“At that time, Ladakh had a mere 400 tourists coming in,” reveals Mehboob Ali, Tourist Officer, Directorate of Tourism, J&K. But ever since, the numbers have only grown, and how.

Going by the above statistics, Ladakhis must have done something extraordinary to place their land on the tourism map of the world.

Ali says: "Earlier, the locals were encouraged to welcome visitors into their homes in exchange for money. This was important since there were no guest houses then."

Things have changed since then. Today, there are around 200 guesthouses and hotels in Ladakh. "There will be two new three-star hotels coming up in Leh very soon," informs Ali proudly.

Connectivity to this remote region too is no longer an issue. Leh has about 14 flights every week – two for Jammu, one for Srinagar and the rest for Delhi.

“For a place that remains closed for about eight months in a year, this development is very good," remarks Ali, adding with obvious satisfaction that all the major private airlines operate in Ladakh.

Unable to handle

Surely all this commerce should translate into better lives for local people? Unfortunately, that is not so. An ecologically sensitive area, Ladakh is witnessing a burst of growth that its fragile eco-system is unable to handle.

The traditional Ladakhi systems of water management and sanitation were in greater harmony with nature

On the one hand, the glaciers in the region are shrinking at an alarmingly rapid rate – ICIMOD predicts that 35% of Ladakh's glaciers would have disappeared in two decades – on the other, the impact of unregulated tourism is taking its toll on natural resources.

Nothing reflects the dismal situation more clearly than the severe water scarcity in the region that is affecting the lives of ordinary Ladakhis, especially the women.

Take sanitation. The traditional Ladakhi systems of water management and sanitation were in greater harmony with nature. For excretory purposes, a compost pit – a structure involving no deployment of water and thereby nullifying the need for sewers or drains – was used. And water from streams – fed by glaciers – was used for drinking purposes until the recent past.

But ‘development’ has brought with it a more westernised lifestyle and a horde of problems. With most hotels using flush toilets, water consumption has increased manifold.

Also, due to a lack of drainage system, sewage water is being let into once pristine streams, thereby polluting the source of drinking water for local inhabitants.

Severe water shortage

For the first time ever, Ladakhis have also had to deal with a severe water shortage. There is limited supply and, of course, the lion’s share is being diverted for the tourist sector.

Sonam Jorgyes, the outgoing director of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, observes: “The tourists take a bath every day and use flush toilets, which consume about 15 litres of water with every use. No wonder Ladakh is facing water shortage."

To overcome the water crisis, hoteliers have resorted to indiscriminate digging of borewells. According to Lobzang Tsultim, Executive Director, Leh Nutrition Project, so far, there is no legislation or regulatory system in place to tackle the menace.

Tsultim says: "There is no legislation to check this activity. As a result, our groundwater table is declining rapidly. Contemporary lifestyles require heavy consumption of water. Ladakh has never enjoyed great rain – the district receives extremely low rainfall of about 10mm every year. And people used to manage with that. Today, people are only concerned about procuring more and more water."

He adds: "The mainstay of Ladakh is subsistence agriculture. With such negligible rainfall, we have to depend on the glaciers for water supply. Water from glaciers feeds the ground water. However, the glaciers are now receding and people are digging borewells. People have not been able to cultivate much of late because of the non-availability of water."

Confirms Nisa Khatoon, a resident of Nubra: "We are experiencing severe water shortage in many places. Almost every family in Ladakh has its own small farm where the family cultivates its vegetables. That has taken a beating with several farms lying unirrigated. Also, there has been an onslaught of new kinds of insects on the farm because of climate change.”

Despite all the bad news, there have been some consistent efforts to rectify the situation. While some Ladakhis are showing the way by leading an eco-friendly lifestyle; others are working to develop new methods and technologies for eco renewal; and still others are finding ways to merge eco-concerns with the requirements of a burgeoning tourism industry.

Take Jorgyes for example. A follower of the traditional Ladakhi way of life, she is today doing her bit for her home region. “I lead a very simple lifestyle. I use a compost pit. I take a bath only once in two or three days. This is because, the weather here doesn't really warrant a daily bath,” she says.

Artificial glacier-maker

Then there is Chhewang Norphel, the man credited with creating artificial glaciers – an obvious boon to the local people.

He recalls: “When we were young, our elders forbade us from washing our hands in the stream because people downstream would be using the same water to drink. We were very considerate toward other members of our community."

A former government civil engineer, Norphel has involved himself in the creation of artificial glaciers by using stone embankments to trap snow for later use.

“The only source of water for us is the snow that melts from the glacier. Since we have such a long winter, I thought that it would be prudent for us to utilise the cold spell to the maximum extent," he says.

Norphel created the first artificial glacier in 1987. However, many of his glaciers were destroyed during a flood that affected the region a couple of years ago.

Despite his best efforts, he has not received any government support or national recognition. However, the Indian army has stepped in and sponsored two of his glaciers in Ladakh. Norphel rues the fact that many people do not really realise the gravity of the situation.

"Earlier agriculture was the main occupation because people needed food for subsistence. However, with the so-called development of the area, people are quitting agriculture and turning to other jobs to earn their daily bread. Having quit agriculture, they do not realise the problems of water shortage that could affect them in the near future," he says.

The imminent environmental crisis calls for changes of lifestyle and the way business is conducted

Model engagements

While tourism is a major cause for ecological concern, there is the larger reality of climate change. The imminent environmental crisis calls for changes of lifestyle and the way business is conducted.

Since tourism has emerged as an important source of livelihood in the region, it is vital that it is made as environment friendly as possible.

Some tourist agencies in Leh have taken a first step in this direction by putting forward a model of engagement that ensures that even in periods of high-density tourist traffic, local resources remain protected.

Many locals are once again welcoming people into their homes, showing them the path to an eco-friendly life, which includes the use of the compost pit and solar energy for heating water.

This is just the beginning. There is a lot that needs to be done. Norphell says: "People are definitely getting aware that something is amiss. However, there is a lack of data on this. More studies need to be done, especially in understanding climate change."

Be an eco-friendly tourist. Here are some tips:

  • Say ‘No’ to plastic: Avoid imported packaged water; refill your bottle with boiled/ filtered water, or filter your own water with handheld filters or iodine drops. Where possible, avoid foods and other products packaged in plastic.

  • Save water: Use traditional Ladakhi compost toilets instead of flush toilets if available (most family-run guesthouses have one). Do not throw anything non-biodegradable or toxic in the toilets. Use natural detergents/ soaps and an eco-friendly laundry service.

  • Save energy: Use solar hot water showers if available. Support establishments that use electricity from renewable sources of energy.

  • Be a responsible trekker: Plan your trek so that there is minimum environmental damage. Eliminate the possibility of waste creation on the trail. Choose trekking agencies that have made environmental responsibility and cultural sensitivity a priority. Try to be self-sufficient when you are trekking through small villages. Wood is a scarce resource, so don’t use it!

  • Ladakh has a unique system of traditional medicine. All of its components come from nature. Please do not collect any plants, flowers or stones.

  • Burn and bury biodegradable waste on site.

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