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INDIA: A Famed Region’s Triple Whammy of Environmental Bane

Athar Parvaiz

LADAKH, India, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - The combined impact of tourism, climate change and changing lifestyle in this internationally renowned adventure haven has raised serious concerns among environmental groups.

A booming tourism is depleting scarce water resource that has already borne the brunt of changing climate patterns. This, while a growing number of people—influenced by a steady of influx of tourists whose lifestyles are manifest to all—are shifting to a consumerist way of living that is causing further environmental stress.

As this high-altitude desert witnesses the impacts of climate change, the residents are finding it difficult to keep their traditional style of living, thanks to the thriving tourism business and the advent of modernism in this cold desert.

Such lifestyle would have helped them cope better with declining natural resources, particularly water, which is increasingly becoming scarcer in the wake of climate change.

Unplanned and unregulated tourism in Ladakh—widely known for its breathtaking mountain ranges—is a major cause of concern among environmentalists, who have voiced apprehension that it could inflict enormous damage to the cold desert’s fragile ecology, more so now that an increasing number of tourists flock to this choice destination.

Most of the 241 hamlets or rural settlements of Ladakh are situated 3,000 metres above sea level. Temperatures range from five to 27 degrees Celsius during summer and -3 to -30 degrees Celsius in winter.

With an area of 97,000 square kilometres, Ladakh is part of the territory of Kashmir, which has been the object of border dispute between India and Pakistan ever since they obtained their independence from British rule and became sovereign countries.

“Until late October, we have received 77,898 tourists, of whom 30,220 are foreigners,” assistant director of the tourism department, Nissar Hussain, told IPS. This is up from last year’s 71,173 tourists.

Based on data from the department, the number of visitors to Ladakh has increased manifold in the last few years. “It started increasing sharply from 2004, when we received more than 34,000 tourists,” said Hussain.

“The growing tourism is putting the environment and ecology of the region in jeopardy in the absence of regulatory controls,” said eco-activist Akhtar Hussain. With the number of tourists increasing sharply each year, more and more hotels and guest houses catering to foreign tourists are being constructed.

“For decades the people of this region have been using compost pits as toilets, which don’t require water,” said Akhtar. But now more than 200 hotels have come up with flush toilets in one of the most thinly populated regions of the world.” The population density in Ladakh is only eight people per square kilometre.

Since there is no drainage system in place, he explained, toilet wastes flow into the streams, the source of most people’s drinking water, he said. It does not help that water is already in short supply in Ladakh since glaciers have been receding and the annual precipitation is just 10 millimetres, said an environmental expert B. Balaji. Adding to the severe water shortage is the mushrooming of hotels.

“When you have a number of hotels using thousands of flush toilets and where the guests bathe daily, it is but natural that you require a huge quantity of water,” Sonum Dorje, an environmental activist, told IPS. Water shortage is even worse during summer, Dorje said.

“Since hotels require water in abundance, they dig bore wells when surface water is not available in good quantity. The indiscriminate digging of bore wells is again proving detrimental to the environment by causing a decline in the ground water.”

Dorje is even more concerned that the lack of appropriate regulations on the conduct of drilling or of the tourism industry has further exacerbated the situation. He stressed the urgent need for the formulation of such regulations to ensure an “environment-friendly” tourism development.

Nisa Khatoon, project officer of the environmental lobby group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Ladakh, said that the scarcity of water has also led the common folk to dig bore wells for their domestic and agricultural needs.

“Most of the households in Leh have farmlands for cultivating vegetables and some of them dig wells for both domestic and agricultural use, which puts a lot of pressure on the ground water,” Khatoon said in an interview with IPS.

Khatoon and other environmental activists in Ladakh have observed a tendency among the local folk to shift to a lifestyle that has an impact on the environment, among others in the form of depletion of natural resources and increased power consumption.

The people, for instance, have abandoned traditional compost pits and replaced them with flush toilets in their homes, increasing domestic consumption of water. They have also resorted to buying electrical appliances and gadgets such as refrigerators and washing machines, said P. Gorjes, also an environmental activist.

Noting these changes in lifestyle and concerned about the concomitant environmental stress, some women activists in various villages of Ladakh have gone out of their way to urge people to stick to their traditional style of living and uphold the Ladakhi culture.

“Our culture and our traditional style of living are under threat. This is a huge challenge to us,” Kunzes Dolma, vice-president of the independent Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, told IPS.

As a result, they launched an awareness campaign across Ladakh, urging the people to stick to their traditional lifestyle that is compatible with nature. “We have never had any serious problems in the past as our style of living was in harmony with nature. But now, when we need it the most in the wake of climate change, people are opting out,” she added.

Ordinary individuals and experts alike have attested to the changing climate patterns as evidenced by warmer temperatures and decreased snow on the hills.

A survey conducted by GERES-India indicates that between 1973 and 2008 there was a rising trend in mean temperatures by one degree Celsius in winter and five degree Celsius during summer. “For the same period, rainfall and snowfall also show declining trend although January 2008 was an exception,” Tundup Angmo, who heads GERES in Ladakh, said.

GERES is a non-governmental organisation headquartered in France and which advocates sustainable development and international solidarity, which is what its French name stands for.

According to WWF’s Khatoon the emerging threat of climate change would cause severe damage to the wetlands of Ladakh, which are the only breeding grounds for the endangered black-necked cranes in India.

“The unplanned and unregulated tourism is also a major threat to the biodiversity of the area as the tourism season coincides with peak biological activity,” said Khatooon. Tourism official Hussain gave assurances that the government “would soon come out with a tourism policy which would take care of all the concerns.”

He added that Ladakh “needs to be protected at all costs.”

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