Dirty Air, Lack Of Water Threaten Ladakh

14 July 2009
The Times of India

Leh: Ladakh is no longer pristine. Rising temperatures are drying up glaciers in this trans-Himalayan cold desert and generator smoke from the power-strapped towns across the rugged mountains in northernmost India are eating into the fragile ecosystem, destroying its sparse green cover. 'The effect of climate change is very high in the mountains. More than 10 percent of the glaciers have melted and at the most I give Ladakh another 30-40 years, if measures are not taken to save the fragile ecosystem and conserve water,' Sonam Gorjyes, director of the Ladakh Ecological Group, said. The signs of change are apparent in the topography. Barely 15 km from crowded Leh lies a desolate stretch of white sand dotted with nearly 50 small Buddhist shrines at the foot of a mountain, next to an ancient palace of the king of Ladakh. A decade ago, Bollywood badshah Shah Rukh Khan and actress Monisha Koirala smouldered on the exotic stretch in an emotionally-packed shot in Mani Ratnam's hit movie 'Dil Se'. Ten years on, the little bend along the river Indus is home to a settlement, shacks, a tourist spot and acute water scarcity. In the district headquarters, Leh, the scene is even more alarming. Depleting ground water, ghetto-like buildings, an explosion of hotels, guest houses, motels, eateries and bazaars that run on diesel generators from noon till dawn, and a profusion of SUVs and cars belching noxious fumes make for a visitors' nightmare. The pungent smoke of the diesel first hits the eyes and then the nose as one enters the town. Coupled with the thin oxygen cover at an altitude of over 3,500 metres, the process of breathing stabilisation and altitude acclimatisation takes longer than the mandatory 24 hours. 'Do not move for at least 36 hours and roll up the windows of your vehicle,' instructs the taxi driver with an anti-pollution shield covering his nose and mouth. At least 40 percent of people in the town working outside homes cover their faces to avoid the diesel smoke - which does not dissipate easily in the thin air. The construction of flush toilets in hotels, army bases and modern apartments have added to the water woes because the water used cannot be recycled owing to the absence of recycling systems, eco-experts rued. 'The water system in Ladakh is snow-fed. Precipitation is less than 40 mm a year. So, most of the villages and towns, including Leh, is dependent on the melting snow. Statistics compiled by the Indian Air Force shows that temperature of Ladakh has risen by one degree Celsius over the last 35 years which is alarming for the region,' said Gorjyes, whose group has been working for the last 25 years to promote renewable energy in the area. The average humidity in Ladakh is below 40 percent. A group of green NGOs met here in April to discuss climate change. The report of their deliberations, published by the UN organisation for mountain ecology, ICIMOD, said 35 percent of the glaciers in the region will disappear by another 20 years and temperatures across the Tibetan and trans-Himalayan region will rise by 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. The Himalayas have around 45,000 glaciers. The boom in tourism, the lifeline of this ancient trading post spread across 97,000 square km along the Himalayan and Karakoram Silk Route, is accelerating degradation, local eco-tourist operators said. According to department of wildlife officials who met the operators for the first time June 30 in Leh to discuss curbs on tourism to save Ladakh's environment, '75,000 tourists visited the district in 2008 and the number would go up by 2009-end'. Ladakh, said Jigmet Thakpa, chief conservator and wildlife warden of the district, 'boasted of a wide biodiversity with 36 mammals, 309 species of birds, 370 species of butterflies, 11 reptiles and 22 types of fish found in the streams. 'But they have to be protected. We are trying to change to the nature of tourism in the countryside by building 300 homestays in the state with women's self-help groups and have restricted indiscriminate use of water and littering.' The district has just been brought under the purview of the Non-Biodegradable Material Management Handling and Disposal Act (2007) passed by the Jammu and Kashmir government. The notification was issued May 14. 'Women's groups are monitoring the imposition of the ban on non-biodegradable material across the district. The situation is alarming. All the small glaciers are gone,' said filmmaker Stanzin Dorjai Gya, whose movie on Ladakh, 'Living With Climate Change', has been screened worldwide. Laments divisional forest officer of Leh B. Balaji: 'The whole world is focussing on islands, while high altitude cold deserts like Ladakh are being ignored. The crops are in peril due to locust attacks from China. It might result in a famine-like situation any time.'