Tourism, with its huge demand on water, energy and sanitation, can damage the environment, but there is something to learn from Spiti, the desert mountain valley of Himachal Pradesh, says water activist S. Vishwanath

Travelling in the vast beautiful landscape of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh is a visual treat. A dry desert, the towering Himalayas in the background, and the beautiful snow-fed emerald green Sutlej and Spiti flowing by makes it a photographer’s delight.

Delightful sign boards tell you a village name as well as its population.

The numbers range from 70 to 200, bringing a smile on the face of an over-populated mainlander. The terrain is harsh and the Border Roads Development Organisation is doing a heroic job in maintaining connectivity.

The winters are harsh and most of the villages are snowbound for four to six months. People have therefore invented the most eco-friendly toilet in the world. These are two floor structures. The top floor is a room with a hole in the floor to squat on and do the job. You then shovel in a rake full of goat or cow dung into the hole.

The bottom floor is a room which collects the waste from the top. It has already a store of goat and cattle dung. All the dung is mixed up and then once in a year during summer time it is removed and applied to the fields as fertilizer. Paper or even a little water can be used for cleansing.

Water is also scarce in winter. Therefore it has to be thawed and used judiciously. A bath is reserved for summer time when the springs are full and it is possible to have the luxury of running water, albeit in a stream.

Tourist expectations

Tourism has brought its travails. A plains person expects hot water which means energy, a flush toilet which means a septic tank and in a land which has very scarce resource this is a catastrophe.

Ecosphere is a small group which is doing some wonderful work in encouraging home-stays which are ecological and in tune with the lifestyle of the community. In these home-stays a small south-facing room is built. This is like a green house and captures the sun’s rays, keeping the room warm without using firewood.

An eco-toilet, which is very clean, is also available in every home-stay. The local food, which is extremely nutritious and delicious, is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Solar lights

Solar lights provide the energy needed for working in the night. One can stay and observe the local lifestyle without being intrusive and one can also learn local water and sanitation practices which are ecological.

To be wise

Volunteers pitch in, helping with teaching or building construction. A holiday experience with a contribution to the village community is a rewarding experience.

Tourism, with its huge demand on water, energy and sanitation, can damage the environment seriously.

In islands like Zanzibar and even our own Lakshadweep it has caused immense damage. With an eco-tourism culture and by working with the community not only can the experience of travelling be enjoyed but also a positive contribution made socially and ecologically.

The need of the hour is to be waterwise in whichever space in the world we occupy. Spiti teaches us a few lessons in that.