Himalayan plunder: Tourist rush threatens fragile Ladakh

More than an average of 300-600 cars visit Pangong lake every day, passing through some of the most fragile ecosystems in the region
The region, with a population of more than 274,000, gets overcrowded by tourists, especially in June and July. Representative photo: iStock.
The region, with a population of more than 274,000, gets overcrowded by tourists, especially in June and July. Representative photo: iStock.

Parts of this article were used in a special edition on the Himalayas, published in February 1-15, 2023, issue of Down To Earth magazine

All is not well in Ladakh, said Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer-turned-innovator, before beginning his five-day climate fast in the cold desert on January 26 and rightly so.

Ladakh has become more prone to flash floods in recent years. The one that grabbed the most attention was in 2010, which claimed more than 200 lives and washed away 1,000 houses.

In 2014, the village of Gya suffered a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) and the primary cause was the melting of an ice-cored moraine.The last time the region was affected by GLOF was 60 years ago.

In the summer of 2015, the entire Ladakh was hit by a series of flash floods. That year Ladakh received more than double the average rainfall, causing damages to the tune of Rs 87.79 crore in Leh and Rs 80 crore in Kargil districts, respectively.

In 2017, the village of Achinathng was devastated by floods when the village river was flooded, washing away the Beialy bridge and creating a temporary reservoir. The consequences of this led to the loss of four people in the village and damages on the Khaltse-Batalik road.

Saboo village is one of those that bear the brunt of flash floods almost every summer. “These events relate directly to the increasing summer precipitation and the general increase of global temperatures,” said Sonam Lotus, head of the meteorological department in Leh.

Rapid climate change has been a major cause of concern globally, but evermore more so in places like Ladakh due to the erratic nature of the weather.

Ladakh’s average rainfall has increased more than thrice in a decade — from 30 mm in 2009 to 140 mm in 2019, according to World Weather Online.

The average rainy days have gone up from eight to 20. Shifting perceptions and the rapid depletion of glaciers in the region have not only contributed to these natural disasters but have raised major environmental concerns.

Unregulated tourism

The worst damage to the region is caused by unregulated tourism. The industry has given an economic boost to the region in recent decades.

The region, with a population of more than 274,000, gets overcrowded by tourists, especially in June and July. Around 250,000 tourists visited within the two months of June and July 2022, according to the Ministry of Tourism. This has led to a construction boom in the region, particularly in Leh.

The region housed around 219 registered hotels, whereas, in 2022, that number grew to more than 800 and almost every one of them relies on groundwater for their consumption, according to the official data of UT Ladakh.

 “Currently, in this part of the town, we have run out of groundwater. There are about 20 hotels just within the span of a km radius and every one of them has dug up bore wells,” said Stanzin Yountan, a local hotelier from Yurthang, Leh.

Yountan said:

Look at this winter, we are in the prime of it where the entire valley should be sparkling with snow by now but even the mountains are bare as well. Not sure how we are going to handle the coming summers.

This statement raises a profound concern about the future of the region. Like Yountan’s hotel, most of them are built upon land that once served as an agricultural space for the people here.

Now, those spaces are congested into tiny gardens. A concerning prospect in terms of food security in the future is to place that one shared zero reliance on the outside world.

Ladakh spans 54,146 kilometres that include both Kargil and Leh districts, making it one of the largest states/Union Territories with the least populated districts in the country. The uniqueness of its landscapes attracts an influx of tourists.

But the tourist activities get limited to only Leh, Nubra and Pangong areas, which are some of the most fragile ecosystems in the region. Also, from a commercial standpoint, only these areas enjoy most of the economic benefits.

Urgyan Skaldan, a local mountain biker and a climber, runs an outdoor travel company and finds it hard to survive in a market that is now narrowed to catering to the domestic crowd.

The current tourism market not only poses an environmental threat but also conveys a dangerous message to the region’s youth to look at it through a commercial angle, he said.

“Diversification of tourism in Ladakh is the need of the hour. We are blessed with such a unique and alluring landscape that is perfectly placed for exploration and outdoor activities while consciously paving a much healthier tourism market,” he added.

The local government should take up strong initiatives to promote the outdoors here, said Skaldan.

In the name of development and for creating vote banks, the villages that were once a hub for outdoor enthusiasts are now upgraded with tarmac roads, destroying the essence of the outdoors.

Ancient trails used by the villagers are perfect for hiking to the far secluded regions, mountain biking and other outdoor activities.

“Trails are the primary asset for any outdoors activities, they act as the massive revenue generator for those secluded villages and provide them with a livelihood that they lack from the current tourism system,” Skaldan said.

More than an average of 300-600 cars visit Pangong lake every day, passing through some of the most fragile ecosystems in the region, according to the data from the Ladakh Taxi Union. The Changthang Plateau inhabits some of the rarest species in the country.

They are now being disturbed and threatened due to human activities. There is a definite need for education about the wildlife of Ladakh and their importance in our ecosystem, said Mohammed Imran, a local wildlife filmmaker.

 “For example, the Marmot is a cute, fluffy animal and the tourists feed them just because of their friendly nature, while ignorantly disrupting the food chain of the ecosystem, which in turn would lead to dire consequences for the people of the region in the long run,” he added.

Additionally, there is a growing concern about the waste management systems of Leh and how that is further burdening the environmental issue of the region. Mipham Jigmet, a member of Zero waste Ladkah, a non-profit, shared his insights on the issue

“The situation currently is in a much better shape than a few years back with the development of soil waste management plants in 2021 at Skapari, Leh,” he said.

Here, the garbage collected is manually segregated and recycled for commercial gains by the local municipality. In contrast, the ones that do not hold any commercial values are burned openly at dumping grounds.

The smoke generated from them is blown towards the glaciers in the nearby village of Saboo, causing rapid glacial erosion, he added. The influx of tourists has further burdened the management. The garbage collected per day in winter is about 1.3 tonnes per day and 12 to 15 tonnes in the summer.

The development phase of Ladakh flows directly to the booming tourism industry, which is proving to be a significant contributor to major natural calamities to come.

At the same time, the infrastructural development of the region is still in this infancy period, without making much impact on the environment yet, though certainly pacing towards piling with the ongoing problems of the region.

In October 2022, Leh hosted Sustainable Mountain Development Summit with the theme ‘Harnessing tourism for development’, where the main concerns raised were about the negative impact of tourism in Ladakh.

Though Ladakh does not face an immediate threat from any infrastructural development, it is crucial to understand that the tourism sector, for now, is playing a prominent role in contributing to climate change by amplifying it further towards a catastrophe in the coming years.

The government, along with the involved shareholders, should make a conscious effort before we are faced with a much more dire situation than the one once faced in the past.

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