Climate Calamity

Unregulated and irresponsible tourism is ruining the fragile ecology of this cold desert and robbing it of natural resources
Climate Calamity
"The last decade has seen a sharp decline in snowfall and the only source of water for them is almost dry due to rising temperatures and climate change." [Representational Image] Flickr/ Creative Commons

“Earthlings need to panic. Climate Change is radically real. With poisoned oceans, waterless land, and toxic air, the end is near. Do we have a plan(et)-B?”

The day I was awarded USD-25 by a California-based firm for the above-mentioned statement, this daily carried a piece of very disturbing news. A video surfaced on Internet where some insensitive tourists were seen driving their SUV through Pangong Lake. It angered and shocked Ladakhis. It is a climate calamity, to say the least.

In 2017, I toured Ladakh, along with a galaxy of learned professors of the University of Kashmir, for an international conference held in Choglamsar. Its hardscrabble look of the place has a magnetic attraction. Beyond Zojila, the risky, rocky & rough terrain zigzagging through naked peaks takes us to the land of lamas.

Ladakh- “a land of high passes” is sandwiched between the Karakoram Mountain range and the Himalayas. Otherwise called “Mountain Desert”, the frozen vast swathes of land surrounded by bare hilltops have their charm. From Lamayuru to Alchi, there are smatterings of green oasis villages- a relief from the epic starkness of the vistas.

Nubra valley, Khardungla, Diskit & Hemis Gompa mesmerize every visitor. The road to Pangong is enveloped by captivating peaks and passes- a nature’s marvel.

After the recently released IPCC synthesis report, the climate is a buzzword, the hottest debate across the globe. Climate change plus irresponsible tourism are hurting the fragile ecology of the arid desert of Ladakh. A decade and a half ago, the region was snow-capped by lofty mountains which were a source of abundant fresh water.

Villagers living in the foothills of the Himalayas are waterless and are migrating to other parts of the region. They have been dependent on water receding from glaciers, for centuries.

The last decade has seen a sharp decline in snowfall and the only source of water for them is almost dry due to rising temperatures and climate change.

The Zanskar region is dependent on agricultural activities for its survival. But most of the agricultural land is of no use since there is no water available for irrigation.

People are now shifting to the nearby village, Gapling, as per the BBC’s ground report. In the last six years, they constructed the 07- Km long canal to get water from Lugnakh Canal.

This is almost the similar story of How Dashrath Manji created a road by drilling a mountain.

Around 300 cabs reach the highest saltwater lake called Pangong every day. Not only do they pollute Ladakh, but they are also robbing them of living. How? I will explain. Three lakh locals and an equal number of tourists need water to survive in this small city of Leh.

Thirteen thousand plastic bottles of water are dumped every day during summers. Intake of water is higher. Why? Because lower oxygen level at higher altitudes makes one breathe faster. Thus, we lose more water through respiration and feel thirstier, and need more intake of water than plains.

As stated earlier, each bottle of water is imported. So, the carbon footprint of anything consumed here is double that of other hill stations. That adds to the crisis. How? Let’s learn.

The low oxygen supply ensures that the biodegradable waste decomposes slower than it usually would. Recyclables are trucked again. It means more pollution. We have a mini Gazipur and Okhla like garbage mountain/s in Ladakh.

Ladakh’s renowned environment conservation activist, Sewang Dolma believes, “the limited number of tourists should be allowed on a first-come-first-serve basis, just like Bhutan, the environmental fee be levied to tourists and a brief awareness program can be held before they enter the region. This will save Ladakh.”

Now, the million-dollar question is should Ladakhis think about survival or sustainable development? Ladakh has an age-old problem: water. It receives 100 mm of rainfall annually. The 3-year-old Union Territory is dependent on snowfall for its water and climate change is making it worse.

It hardly snows now. Lesser or no snow means no water for its residents. Glaciers are melting and water is receding. What is the local solution? This question was raised in 2020 during my fellowship with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. That is when I decided to work for the community.

I learned that Ice-stupas, the artificial glaciers, store water in winters and are used in Spring. This was one quick solution we could work on. As the earth warms, more monsoon clouds (earlier stopped by the Himalayas) are now rising higher and resulting in cloud bursts and flash floods in Ladakh. How does it happen?

Thousands of diesel vehicles release black suspended particles, it flies away and settles on glaciers. It hurts the ecology in two places: Changla pass which is on way to Pangong-World’s highest saltwater lake. And on way to Nubra Valley at Khardungla pass- the world’s highest motorable road.

These highest points are near glaciers, the black suspended particles coming out of diesel vehicles settle on glaciers. As I said earlier, Ladakh has more sunny days; black quickly absorbs the light. It hastens the melt of these glaciers. It is a hair-raising issue. But who cares?

Ladakh is a cold desert in the rain shadows of the Himalayas. This is the reason that Monsoon clouds don’t make it here. Therefore, it witnesses a scarce rainfall, of as less as 100 millimeters.

Then, how do people survive? The answer is Glaciers. Glacier melting provides water to Ladakh. It values every drop of water like never before. Leh has no industries, everything is trucked in. Ladakh may have wide-open spaces, a deep blue sky, and crystal-clear lakes but there is a flip side to it.

Ladakh may be a breathtaking picturesque landscape today but if not taken care of, it will be next Sahara. Ladakhis may be making money but at the cost of the environment. So, the local solution is electric vehicles. Ladakh has 300 plus sunny days. We can have more solar charging points.

Surjit Karthikeyan, Deputy Secretary, in the Ministry of Finance recently wrote that comprehensive policy measures against plastics may generally involve three complementary activities: the removal of existing taxes and subsidies that have a negative environmental effect, taking into account the different grades of plastics, and restructuring existing taxes in an environmentally friendly manner.

A 2021 UNEP report estimated that emissions of plastic waste into the aquatic ecosystem may triple by 2040 if no meaningful action is taken.

Cigarette butts take 12 years to decompose; plastic bottles take 450 years; juice cartons five years; cans 200-500 years and polystyrene foam cups never decompose at all. Tourism is fine. Nobody is denying it but surely not at the cost of environmental disaster.

I will not go into the details of last year’s Glasgow climate pact, a document signed by nearly 200 nations but recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are alarming.

The month of March was the hottest in the last 122 years. In March and April, extremely high temperatures were recorded across the country. The Spring season almost disappeared in Asia.

Throughout April, due to intense heatwaves, forest fires intensified, and Power demand reached the highest levels in at least a decade. Climate change is radically real.

Irresponsible tourism dooms any tourist attraction. Open dumping of plastic is unscientific, especially in sub-zero Himalayan conditions. The cold prevents decomposition. When bio-degradable waste mixes with water, it forms leachate, a toxic liquid that permeates groundwater.

Plastic needs segregation, processing, and recycling but much of it is burnt or dumped. In 2016, the central government issued progressive rules to handle solid waste.

Single-use plastic is now banned and the ‘polluters to pay’ principle is in vogue. But is it followed in letter and spirit? Not really. The fragile ecosystem of this land will pay a price the country cannot afford.

First opened for tourism in 1974 with just 500 tourists. Now annually three lakh visitors throng Ladakh. Earlier dependent on agriculture and defense, Tourism has reshaped its economy.

Tourism contributes to 50 % of the local GDP. Kashmir is expected to receive the highest footfall this year, six lakh tourists have already made it to the valley so far.

As tourists- campers, trekkers, mountaineers, backpackers, and pilgrims, from other parts of India flock to Kashmir in record numbers to escape the summer heat, they must respect the local ecology. Otherwise, Behisht can turn Barzakh. Karma stings.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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