Atithi Devo Bhava – “the guest is equivalent to God” – goes the ancient Hindu mantra, and the tagline of a recent campaign by India’s Ministry of Tourism. But in Ladakh, it’s proving somewhat disastrous for the fragile mountain ecosystem. While visitors from the rest of India and around the world bring in much-needed investment to sustain the region’s economy, they also add pressure on its precious natural resources, especially water.
Known as the ‘Land of High Passes’, Ladakh is renowned for its remote beauty and culture. Its numerous monasteries have attracted Buddhist pilgrims for the last millennium, but the rugged terrain has limited the number of other visitors for centuries. Things have slowly changed since the mid-1970s, however, when the region was opened up to domestic and foreign tourists. In the last 15 years or so, there has been an exponential increase in the number of visitors and Leh, the largest town in Ladakh, has been their base.
In part thanks to an aggressive campaign by the tourism department after the region’s floods in 2010, visitor numbers have increased to more than 230,000 in 2016 from just 527 in 1974. Accommodation has also boomed. In the 1980s, there were just 24 hotels throughout Ladakh and today there are 670, some 60% of which are in Leh.
More guesthouses and hotels means more modern toilets and bathrooms, which adds more pressure to Leh’s water availability – surface and groundwater. “Almost 75% of people in Leh and the surrounding areas now run either a hotel or a guest house from their property,” says Chewang Norphel, a Ladakh local who pioneered a simple method of creating artificial glaciers. “These establishments are only possible with water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
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And tourists use more water. A study by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (Ledeg) found that the average Ladakhi uses 21 litres of water per day, while a tourist needs as much as 75.
“Tourism drives our economy, so quality matters most. We regularly inspect hotels to see if it has ample water, septic tanks and parking,” says Tsering Dolkar, a tourism officer. No department, however, has control over the source of water or how a hotel or guesthouse disposes of sewage.
Sustained by snowpack
At more than 11,000 feet altitude, Ladakh lies in the rain shadow region of the Himalayas. Annual precipitation averages just 10 centimetres, mainly in the form of snow, but it’s enough to sustain the region’s population of 274,289 people.
Each settlement has its own stream, called a tokpo in the Ladakhi language. The people of Leh have traditionally depended on the Leh tokpo, fed by the Phuche and Khardung glaciers. But tourism activities have increased the demand for water, prompting the public health department to explore different resources.
Each day, roughly three million litres of water is supplied to Leh from three sources: direct extraction from the Indus river bed in the heart of the town, digging borewells in Leh town and upper Leh areas, and through springs and diversion channels. As of December 2016, almost 50% of the town received piped water supply for two hours a day.
Another factor impacting Leh’s water issues is the presence of military personnel in the town. Locals estimate that there are around 100,000 people – officers, jawans, porters and labourers – who stay in the town and depend on the groundwater.
“Climate change is affecting the water cycle, which in turn affects groundwater recharge,” says Phunchok Namgyal of Ledeg. “Extraction is increasing as more and more borewells are drilled each year to cater to the needs of tourists. There is no monitoring, no regulation.”
In the absence of any regulatory mechanism, the public health engineering department has no power to act against groundwater extraction. Sonman Dawa Lonpo, chief executive of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), says that nothing has yet been done to stop people digging borewells without permission, despite the council resolving to do so two years ago. He was unable to provide a reason for the inaction.
Meanwhile, environmental activists have warned of the problems this overexploitation may cause; the increasing number of borewells digging into the aquifers directly affect the springs, on which the population depends for drinking water and agriculture use.
Ladakh’s conservation vision
But not all is yet lost. The LAHDC, public health department and local people are aware of the problems, and changes are underway.
In 2014, the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns, a central government scheme, was launched. In Leh the scheme includes: building an intake well for groundwater at two points in the Indus flood plains to increase the current supply, constructing five new water reservoirs, replacing all existing pipes with more durable ductile iron pile pipes for 1,000 public stand posts and 4,500 home connections and lastly, laying a piped sewerage network for the whole town. Almost 50% of the work is done, officials say, with the rest targeted for completion next year.
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There’s also the Ganglass reservoir, upstream of Leh. It was built by an NGO and the Irrigation and Flood Control Department (I&FC) a number of years ago, but was only filled with water last year following the diversion of the Leh topko. “The reservoir will serve two purposes; recharging the groundwater and providing water when the ice in the reservoir melts after the winter,” says Tsering Dorje, executive engineer at the I&FC.
Meanwhile, the All Ladakh Tour Operators Association has advocated for an environment tax to be charged to domestic and international tourists. While this is not yet in place, it is clear that authorities must continue to make changes to ensure that tourism in the region is sustainable, and that it protects and preserves Ladakh’s fragile ecology and vulnerable population.
Nivedita Khandekar is a journalist based in Delhi, writing on environmental and development issues. Follow her on Twitter at @nivedita_Him. This report is a summary of the reports she wrote in The Pioneer, having worked for the reports with a Fellowship from International Water Management Institute and thethirdpole.net