By Lata Jha:
When it comes to Ladakh, very few of us go beyond its panoramic sights. Hardly anyone knows that the region lying between the frozen mountains of the Himalayas and the Karakoram has begun to witness longer periods of water shortages than ever before, precipitation has become erratic and there is fear of imminent desertification of the area.
Climate change is altering Ladakh’s ecosystem. Glaciers and snow precipitation are the only sources of water. But the ice usually is so thin even during extreme winters that walking on it is very dangerous. Floods and mudslides have killed several people, caused damages and ravaged innumerable canals and reservoirs.
Precipitation patterns are so erratic that they pose a risk to agriculture. There is much less water even during spring. This is quite worrying as the newly diversified agriculture requires more water than it did in the past. Moreover, the Defence Research and Development Organisation that is encouraging farmers to diversify crops has planted hundreds of trees to counter land erosion and desertification, and to assure growing demand of wood. The greening process in Ladakh also requires large amounts of water.
Meanwhile, glaciers are moving back at high altitudes that start melting around mid-June. As a result, there is acute shortage of water between the months of April and July that in turn disturbs agriculture. Tourism is an economic windfall for Ladakh. It attracts hundreds of young people who work in restaurants, hotels or as guides to earn a livelihood. Today, Leh is a worksite. New hotels, guesthouses and public institutions are built every year using mud bricks instead of stones. It must be noted that mud bricks consume a lot of water.
A lot of water is also wasted, especially in these touristic pursuits. Traditional compost-toilets, for example, are being replaced by water-intensive toilets. If the local population is conscious and develops the habit of saving water, tourists would be more careful. But that isn’t really happening.Â Difficulties in agriculture and rapid growth of tourism have compelled people to leave villages and shift livelihood. People are going to cities not only to work in tourism, but also in the army and government. Since farming requires a lot of hard work and the return is nominal, people prefer to leave their homes and go out.
NGOs and the LAHDC are helping communities in Ladakh to develop tools for reducing snow melt as well as for better storage of water during shortage. The projects are very uncomplicated and ingenious, but they require funds. The Central and state governments are supposed to support these initiatives through the watershed program. But because the state government has tightened its purse strings, the Centre refuses to contribute to the project. Maybe someday when they find time to look beyond the picturesque locations, they will realise that there are real problems that plague real people in their daily lives.