Ladakh or land of high passes is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Jammu and Kashmir with a total population of thirty thousand and is situated at an elevation of 2750 - 7672 meters above sea level. Its blessed with incredible topography that comprises of hilly terrains, high altitude peaks, glaciers, and lakes. Stunning arid mountains dramatically crowned with snow, spectacular monasteries, and multi-hued flags are few of the many sites that adorn the beauty of Ladakh.
It is considered as heaven by all adventure lovers across the globe who are looking out to satiate their need for an adrenaline rush. Adventure fanatics flock here for trekking as there are a plethora of trek trails and trekking options available. Other adventure sports such as biking, water rafting, safaris, skiing, etc are also very popular. All these factors have gradually contributed to an increase in the number of tourists here. From mere 500 tourists in 1974 when it was first opened for tourists to 250,000 tourists last year, Ladakh has come a long way.
This means that a population of handful people(almost 30,000) is accountable to hospitalise a whopping number of 250000 tourists in just five months. This enormous number of people descend in a city of an area less than five square kilometers. Heavy tourism has brought with it a major boom in the economy of Ladakh. It has created thousands of jobs for the locals and revenue of more than 2000 crores. The Contribution of tourism accounts to 50% of the local GDP of once totally agriculture-dependent economy. Hotels, guest houses, travel agents, local tour organizers, bike and car rental firms, taxis, restaurants, food joints, photographers - all these sectors are booming due to a dramatic rise in the number of tourists.
Every coin has two sides and here the darker side of the Ladakh tourism coin is way darker than anyone can imagine. Tourism and commercialization, in a place which has always stood at the frontier of nature, and has walked and flourished hands in hands with nature, are playing havoc with the ecology and environment of this place. No wonder tourism had brought growth and development to this place but the price the environment and ecology of Ladakh are paying for this is gigantic and is borne in the form of these following major problems:-
1. Garbage management problem
Bomgar landfill, which once used to be a barren land (little hidden from the main city) witnesses dumping of more than 13000 used plastic water bottles every day. Eight rounds of trash dumping in a day has escalated to thirty rounds a day. What makes the situation worse is that this place has low oxygen levels which leads to slow decomposition of the biodegradable waste. And recyclables, if segregated again have to be trucked out of this place leaving a huge carbon footprint.
2. Water problems
Ladakh is a cold desert in the rain shadows of Himalayas, therefore rainfall is very scanty here(less than 100mm per year). Hence the only source of water here are the glaciers. Now on an average, a local use less than 21 liters of water a day while on the other hand a tourist uses 75 liters of water a day. Almost all of the 800 hotels have borewells which are catering to the requirement of almost 5000 liters of water in a day which is so not ideal in a desert.
3. Air pollution
To serve the demanding tourists, a sea of taxis and traveler buses and vans has become omnipresent in once isolated and deserted Ladakh. With an increase in the number of tourists, demand for almost everything under the sun has increased manifolds and to cater to this demand, everything has to be trucked in from more than 1000 km(since nothing is manufactured here). The Carbon footprint of everything consumed up there is triple of what it is in other hill stations.
4. Global Warming
Increase in pollution and mountains of garbage have done irrevocable damage to the environment of this place. From the last decade, a rise in temperature by 3 degrees has been observed by the local environmentalists. This increase in temperature has fast-tracked melting of glaciers. Bursting of glacial lakes from their dams, cloudbursts and flash floods - all these problems are arising due to the damage that was done by global warming.
5. Darkening and Melting of Glaciers
According to a recent study, Glaciers are melting more because of local pollution caused by cars, taxis, trucks and other sources releasing smoke. The black suspended carbon particles coming from these sources settle on the wall of glaciers and make them turn black, which in turn attracts more sunlight and accelerates the melting process manifolds. Maximum tourists visit these glaciers( Khardong, Changla Pass, Pangong lake) where this pollution effects the most. Leh is completely dependent on Khardong glacier for its water requirements, and its vanishing rapidly. Environmentalists predict that in a decade or two this glacier will completely disappear.
6. Sanitation problems
Many hotels, restaurants, and guest houses have been erected in a short span with faulty sewage disposal systems which are contaminating the water streams and local sources of drinking water. Insects(such as mosquitoes) and diseases unknown to Ladakhis have become common due to unregulated waste disposal systems.
7. Effect on unique culture and social values
From time immemorial, Ladakhis have lived in harmony with nature and mutual interdependence with the fellow locals. Ladakhis formed a casteless and to a great extent, classless viable society and had set an example of peaceful and harmonious co-existence. With the development of tourism, a general disruption of community bond and the degradation of social values has started already. The evolution of haves and have-nots has begun. Tourism has given birth to class-formation in the society and the division is based on economic parameters.
The ignorance of tourists, the quest for money of locals, and ill governance of tourism authorities have turned once serene mountains and pristine glaciers into polluted and dirty sights. The sight of a sea of taxis and trucks instead of crystal clear lakes is distressing. Mountains of garbage and flooding landfills are the sights that neither the tourists nor the locals want to behold.
The damage that has been done is irrevocable but immediate actions and sustainable solutions to the problems together can make thing fall in pace again. Scientists and environmentalists have come with the following measures that should be taken with immediate effect to put an end to this mess:-
1. Regulating tourist inflow
Banning tourism completely is not a solution but regulating the quality and quantity of tourists in the area can work wonders. This regulation can lead to a controlled number of tourists in the area which can be served well without exploiting the natural resources of the place.
2. Well informed and aware tourist
Only well informed and aware tourist should be allowed in Ladakh, the one who will mend his ways according to the need of the hour and will do the least damage to the environment.
3. Cable cars
Cable cars units must be set up by the government so as to minimize pollution in the glacier and other sensitive areas.
4. A complete ban on Plastic materials
Stringent policies on banning plastic materials(such as water bottles, polybags, etc) must be brought in action with immediate effect.
5. A ban on diesel combustion vehicles
It will dramatically reduce the enormous carbon emissions occurring every day.
6. Tap Solar energy -
Ladakh gets almost 300 sunny days throughout the year. Hence solar energy can be tapped and brought into use for almost everything from water geysers, electricity, solar charging stations for battery operated vehicles.
7. Levying environmental fees
It can help to restore the damage already done to the environment and also the sum collected can be used for the development of Ladakh and areas nearby.
8. Decentralize Leh and Ladakh
To release tourism pressure from these two places, decentralization into areas of Kharu, Chemday, Niemo, and Bazgo can be of immense help. Locals of these regions will also be benefited from tourist inflow.
Completely banning tourism will only aggravate problems for the locals but channelizing tourism in a manner that locals and tourists, both can be benefited is what the authorities should focus on. Decentralizing to nearby destinations where things would be more planned and managed to handle tourism in harmony with nature and environment should be worked upon. Bhutan is a perfect example when it comes to handling tourism. Just like Bhutan, Ladakhis can also set an example to the world that with some corrective measures and management one can live with all the comforts of modernity without making the Mother Nature suffer.