Every summer, the population in the northern Union Territory of Ladakh swells significantly. With a local population of about 2,74,000 people, the number doubles as around 3,00,000 tourists visit the region.
The exponential rise in tourist footfall – from 16,449 tourists in 1994 to about 2,79,000 in 2019, as per Ministry of Tourism data – has definitely pumped in money in the jobs-scarce Ladakh. But it also brought with it an unwarranted burden on Ladakh’s natural resources.
Sajad Nabi Dar, a climate expert who works on sustainable mountain tourism development in Ladakh, while discussing the pressure on resources from the tourists said, in Ladakh, you could find two types of toilets – traditional dry compost toilets and modern flush toilets.
“While the locals, especially farmers, prefer the conventional dry toilets as they are suitable for their farming lands and save water,” Dar told Mongabay-India. “Tourists prefer flush toilets. Each tourist wastes around seven to eight buckets of precious water daily on a toilet, which is entirely unnecessary in a region where water is extremely precious.”
Like most places in Ladakh, Leh town used to get its supply of water from glacial meltwater and springs. But over the years, the water demand skyrocketed so much that the hotels and guesthouses had to dig their borewells to extract the groundwater, which further depleted the water table. Now, the majority of springs in the town have dried up, and thousands of water tankers are required daily to fulfil the needs of the tourists for a 24X7 water supply.
As a result, the water shortage is forcing locals to leave their generational homes and give up their agrarian-based economy. In fact, many villages in the valley, such as Kulum near Leh and Kumik in Zanskar, were abandoned due to water shortage. While attempts are being made to rehabilitate ghost villages by solving the water crisis, experts believe the problem won’t vanish away until unregulated tourism-led pressure on Ladakh is reduced.
Waste management problem
While the tourist boom has undeniably created employment opportunities in the region of India, it has led to severe after-effects on the environment. With more tourists coming in, there is a growing problem of improper disposal of garbage and plastic waste in the area. Infrastructure for waste disposal and management is still lacking, resulting in an impact on the fragile ecosystem in Ladakh.
Aparajita Goswami of Zero Waste Ladakh told Mongabay-India that “Ladakh has always been a Zero Waste society” but “with the opening of Ladakh to the outside world, the contents of the local waste changed, comprising a large portion of inorganic materials such as plastics, cement, glass, metals, ceramics, polyester, rubber and much more”.
“Although dearly paid for by the locals, such waste materials hold little or no value for them,” Goswami said. “Thus, waste proliferation and pollution of the pristine environment have become the most pressing concerns in Ladakh.”
Konchok Norgay, who works with Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh and Himalayan Institute Alternative Ladakh, founded by Sonam Wangchuk for Sustainable Development of Ladakh, explains how Ladakh is “loved to death” by the influx of uncontrolled tourists.
“In tourist season, every day, 300-600 cars visit Pangong Lake carrying approximately four persons per car and each passenger buying at least four single-use plastic bottles,” Norgay said. “All these 5,000-10,000 bottles are recklessly littered in the valley without thinking who will clean up their mess once their trip ends. Since there is no proper waste management system in Ladakh, the plastic waste remains discarded forever in the open area, sometimes reaching inaccessible lands where tourists cannot reach.”
Sharing the grim picture of an almost non-existent waste management system in Leh, Vilayat Ali of Pristine Ladakh, who runs a sustainable tourism company, said, “Over 50,000 plastic bottles are used each day in Leh and approximately 16 tonnes of waste generated per day during the tourist season.”
“All this waste goes to an open landfill area called Bombguard that lies just outside Leh,” Ali said. “Once a livestock pasture is now a large landfill and a breeding ground for hundreds of feral dogs. These dogs have become a big menace – they attack locals, kill local wildlife and even mate with foxes. Thus bringing a permanent change in the wildlife of Ladakh.”
In fact, experts note that Ladakh did not have major problems with waste until two decades ago. The local population would recycle most of the waste they generated. Norgay told Mongabay-India that Leh had no landfills until the two roads opened – Leh-Srinagar highway and Leh-Manali road.
“Once the roads opened, it brought along hordes of tourists keen to get clicked in pristine landscapes, but had no time to respect and responsibly manage their waste,” he said. “The large volume of waste produced by them is polluting land, air and water. While the plastic waste degrades the soil fertility and chokes water bodies, the poisonous fumes from open landfills make the already thin air non-breathable, especially vicinity around.”
He added that faulty sewage systems in hotels mix the contaminated water with groundwater and spring water used by the local communities. “In a bid to appease temporary tourists, they create permanent health hazards for locals,” he said.
From primarily being an agricultural economy, Ladakh’s economy now heavily depends on tourism-related businesses such as hotels and restaurants, travel agencies, trekking companies, guide services, taxi and flight booking services, souvenir shops, and so on.
Many of Ladakh’s residents, especially the young, draw their income from these activities, making tourism almost the lifeline of Ladakhi economy and society. As a result of the shift to tourism, locals are gradually giving up farming – their traditional source of livelihood.
Locals rue that tourists only look at Ladakhi people as mere props of the pre-industrialised Tibetan era and do not make an effort to understand the local culture and cuisine of the place.
Dolkar, a resident of Aryan Valley, one of the last remaining villages in the world, claimed to have the “pure Aryan race”, said tourists are just interested in getting clicked with them wearing their elaborate headgear and sheep wool kaftans. But nobody wants to understand further how this over-commercialisation of culture is hurting the younger generations.
Also, even though tourism has brought clear economic benefits to the region, the benefits may not be reaching everyone in the region. The local operators highlight that very little of the economic benefit of tourism reaches the majority of the population in Ladakh that lives outside the popular area of Leh.
According to the President of All Ladakh Tour Operators Association, Daleks Namgyal, 90% of the domestic tourists who visit Ladakh keep Leh-Nubra-Pangong on their itinerary but do not explore much beyond that.
“Kargil, the other district in Ladakh, is similar in size and attractions as Leh gets only 15%-20% tourists,” he said. “And, they too mostly spend a day in the town to visit the war memorial or use it as a transit night halt destination when travelling on Leh-Srinagar highway.”
Local experts argue that it is still not too late to protect Ladakh and a lot of difference can be made by tourists just by making better choices.
For instance, Vilayat Ali says that tourists can make a lot of difference by coming to the region even during the off-season and visiting lesser-known places.
“They can look for unique experiences beyond visiting star attractions, choose locally grown vegetables and fruits to support the local farmers, waste less water, choose homestays over swanky hotels and use dry compost toilets wherever possible,” he said.
The locals also want tourism to focus on reducing plastic usage and waste by taking small steps such as carrying a reusable water bottle to refill it from natural sources, eco-friendly cutlery, reusable thermos flask and have freshly prepared food and drinks prepared by the locals.
Konchok Norgay, who works with the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, emphasised that the authorities can involve the youth in waste management as they are aware of the ill impacts of the burgeoning waste problem and are highly motivated in keeping their region clean.
Namgyal said that tourists can choose sustainable activities. “Tourists can include adventure and nature activities in their itineraries to explore Ladakh on foot or a bicycle,” he said. “It will keep them fit, reduce the carbon footprint and help build deeper connections with the locals.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.
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