Ladakh; India’s cold desert facing Environmental Collapse

Representational Image

By Dr. Parveen Kumar, Dr. Kunzang Lamo and Dr. D Namgyal
In the Union Territory of Ladakh, the rest of India is referred to as ‘Down’. This is because of the region standing at an altitude ranging from the 2900m to 5900m above mean sea level is one of the highest and coldest.
The UT consists of two districts; Leh and Kargil. At no point in Leh would you be less than about three kilometers above the mean sea level. This vast barren district is more than 45000 sq km; is India’s largest district and certainly it’s most sparsely populated.
Ladakh is called as the kingdom of sustainable development, with some 15000 km² of protected areas, Ladakh has become synonymous with biodiversity protection in India. Specific regulations have been drawn up for the region to ensure preservation of the natural environment.
With limited water available in rivers and streams is the melt from the glaciers living in this region is not an easy affair while the temperature drops down to -200C to -400C in the winter season. All roads through mountainous passes remain closed for more than seven months a year. Means of livelihood are restricted to agriculture and that too to one short season in summer and livestock rearing.
Yet people have prospered in this harsh climate, survived in this rarified air. The road connection to Srinagar came only in the year 1960. The key has been living with the harsh ecology and indigenous innovations and adopting them.
Ladakhis use dry toilets that turn human excreta into rich organic manure; they grow crops that use little water. Since labour is difficult, they have cooperative farming.
People living the cold desert and its adjoin parts have organized their society, Buddhist or Muslim along a structure that is essentially democratic. What is unique to this region is that the paucity of resources has not created any conflict; rather it has led to more cooperation and consensus.
Living in harmony with people and nature is not an ideal here; it is in-fact a prerequisite of survival while the agriculture is subsistence in nature, the armed forces have emerged as the biggest employers in Leh district. Tourism, too, provides a much needed means of livelihood and has grown rapidly in the recent past.
The biggest challenge of the present century is to maintain harmony with the environment in which we live. Environment consists of both living as well as non living components and there existed a delicate and intricate balance between the two components.
Unfortunately, the development activities cost the people of this region the environment in which they live. Men started playing with nature and thus resulted in havoc. The technology and some recent developments have also resulted in already fragile environment of the area. Tourism no doubt is very important industry serving as a means of livelihood of many but it has also a threatening aspect too.
Depletion of groundwater is already a major issue across India and in water-stressed regions like Ladakh, the stakes are high. Water is a scarce resource in the area and thus due to the increasing number of tourists and an increasing number of hotels and other construction activities and with uncertainty in glacial water resources, the region now has to depend upon ground water resources for everyday chores.
Tourists outnumber locals by a huge margin during the summer months and over the past few years the average ratio has been three tourists per local. The indigenous communities have developed elaborate social, cultural systems to manage it and ensure optimal and rightful use of water.
But the big hoteliers exclude these indigenous water conservation techniques like dry toilets. The inhabitants of the region believe that practices like such would be hampered if people come from outside and settle in Ladakh. They will not understand the local culture, values and the traditions and hence will be a threat to the environment.
The climate is showing significant amount of change; according to World Weather Online, average rainfall in Ladakh during summers has gone from 30mm in 2009 to over 140mm in 2019, while the average number of rainy days has gone up from 8 to 20 in just a decade.
Another thing that is happening all across the Ladakh as an evident sign of climate change is that the snowfall, the winter precipitation has been decreasing and it has drastically gone down in Ladakh over the last few years. The gradual surge in summer precipitation has made it imperative to green the upper parts of the mountain to deal with heavy gush of rain water.
In any other landscape, rainfall comes as a godsend where water will eventually be soaked by the soil making it rich and fertile as well as enriching the water table. Ladakh’s rocky terrain, however, shows no natural mechanism to ingest the rainwater, hence pushes it downwards in the form of a flood.
Last decade has seen many villages facing the problem of flood; in the last 10 years, village Phyang has on an average faced one flood every three year. The changing temperatures have also led to the increasing incidences of insect pests in the region.
The recent abrogation of Article 370 and making Ladakh a new Union Territory by bi-furcating the state of Jammu and Kashmir and by repealing Article 35A, the government scrapped the special land rights granted to the residents of the region allowing anybody from outside the territory to purchase land.
This has created fear in the minds of Ladakhis that it would lead to an environmental collapse as the Ladakhi ecosystem has to reconcile with the new situation. People coming from outside will have no regard for the fragile ecosystem of the region.
Locals fear that with bigger players in the picture, natives will lose their existing business and will not be a part of the region’s thriving travel economy. People will not just lose their business but they also run the chance of losing their cultivable land in the name of developmental activities.
The authors are Scientists at KVK-Leh, they can be reached at