With the snowland becoming a vacation destination, it is unable to withstand the deluge of visitors From a scanty 400 visitors two decades ago, Ladakh is now being trodden upon by thousands of travellers every year.

Summer is here, and what better than the snow covered hills and gorgeous vistas of Ladakh? Families, friends, honeymooners go there in great numbers now, enjoy the scenic beauty, shop and come back: but there is more to this ‘been there, done that' experience.

Every year, the number of tourists opting for Ladakh as a getaway is going up exponentially, directly affecting the environment and culture of the snowland. From a scanty 400 visitors two decades ago, Ladakh is now being trodden upon by thousands of travellers every year.

A lack of understanding and respect among the visitors for the environment of Ladakh doesn't help matters. For years Ladakh remained a strategically and geographically isolated region located high in the western Himalayas. It is a semi-autonomous region comprising Leh and Kargil districts and is subjected to extreme climatic conditions. The high altitude cold desert supports a unique ecosystem which sustains a sparse population along with some rare species of flora and fauna. Due to long isolation from the outside world, a unique gene pool has evolved in the region specially adapted to the harsh climatic conditions.

Worryingly, the rare is now on the verge of extinction and the extremities have reduced to “normal”. Global warming has impacted the region and, except for the indigenous dwellers, no one really cares, perhaps because they are not directly affected by the change.

Development, ask anyone, is the prime cause for the environmental and traditional crisis in the valley. However, it is not development that is devastating the region, it is the imbalance and the lack of future perspective in the development policies.

In the past, traditions of prudence and cooperation coupled with intimate knowledge of local environment enabled the Ladakhis not only to sustain but to prosper. Agriculture was the main occupation as survival was the only big challenge they faced. Fields were irrigated with the water that melted from the glacial snow – the only source of water for the region. About 80 per cent of Ladakhis relied on glacial melt which today is shrinking at an alarmingly swift rate.

Ladakh is unable to withstand the overburden of the travellers in conjunction with the changes they bring along ‘unknowingly'. Tourism and economic development ushered major influences by which Ladakhi agriculture has been hit in particular. People have turned their back to this traditional source of livelihood and have opted for seasonal hospitality-related jobs in town. Worse, subsidised food offered by a well-meaning government is considerably cheaper than food grown locally. People have abandoned their farms. The youth, determinants of the future of the region, do not even know how to grow barley on their land.

“The goal of life is living in agreement with nature”, believed the old Ladakhi generation which still recalls the golden olden days. “There was greater harmony with nature in terms of conventional systems of water management and sanitation. A compost pit was used for excretory purposes that involved no deployment of water, thus quelling the need for sewers or drains.

With most hotels using flush toilets, water utilization has been augmented manifold. This has become a major reason for polluting the once pristine streams, for, in absence of a sewage system, the sewage water is being let into the streams, thereby polluting the only source of drinking water for the local population. Today's Ladakh cries for help. The famed freshness of the air is being choked by diesel fumes, streets are piled up with rubbish and the quality of water has deteriorated. These together form the picture of a ‘new' Ladakh.

As the winter gets colder and summer hotter, the upsurge in the number of travellers and subsequently the hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related activities have wrought havoc on the fragile balance of nature. The cloudburst that wiped out the community on August 5 nearly two years ago is a dreadful example of how fragile the environment has become. Heavy rainfall, unknown in the high altitude region, has become a more frequent phenomenon.

As they say, better late than never. The community has woken up to the crisis. Various organisations are trying to bring together the communities to save the snowland from disaster. One such is Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), which promotes ecological and sustainable development. Similarly, the women's group, Aama Tsogspa is playing a crucial role in conserving the environment with successful initiatives like a ban on polythene bags in the valley. To create a sense of responsibility among visitors conservation regulations are also been implemented. Ideas, suitable to the indigenous environment, have turned out to be fruitful like the implementation of renewable resources of energy. Communities are trying to take corrective measures before it becomes too late.

(Charkha Features)