For the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in vehicle traffic in the area due to the opening of the Atal tunnel at the Rohtang Pass in October 2020. Most of these cars will be carrying sightseers on their way to the city of Leh in Ladakh or the Lahaul region in Himachal Pradesh.
This year, a record 250,000 people visited Leh in just two months (June and July). In just two months, the city of Leh will see eight times as many visitors as locals.
Increasing garbage production, water demand, vehicle traffic, and construction activities have environmentalists worried about the impact of Leh’s booming tourism industry on the city’s sustainable way of life.
As additional infrastructure is being built to accommodate visitors, some non-governmental organizations and environmentalists are calling for restrictions on tourist mobility, as well as the promotion of responsible tourism and conscious travel, in Leh.
By October 2020, when the highway was opened to the public, 4.5 lakh (450,000) automobiles have passed via Rohtang Pass each month. After that, the Atal tunnel saw 17 lakh (1.7 million) cars pass through it between October 2020 and August 2022, according to data from the Himachal Pradesh police. If you want to visit here you have to apply for a rohtang pass permit. In fact, traffic volume has surged by about 400% in the two years since the tunnel opened, compared to the two years before it opened.
In the eight months between January 1 and August 19, 2022, data showed that 7.62 lakh (762,000) cars had gone through the tunnel.
The Manali-Leh highway was the most traveled route to Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh before the tunnel was built, but it was frequently blocked due to bad weather for as long as six months of the year (November through April).
Since opening to the public nine kilometers of the Atal Tunnel, traffic has increased dramatically. SP Manav Verma of Lahaul and Spiti informed Mongabay-India that for the first time ever, visitors are visiting the region even in the winter.
The SP said that it was difficult to determine the origin of the traffic, but he speculated that the vast majority of visitors heading either to Leh or the Lahaul valley.
NGOs and environmentalists are worried about the impact of the increasing number of tourists and automobiles in the fragile Himalayan region, as much of the traffic goes through the Atal tunnel (also known as the Rohtang tunnel), which was built at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet above sea level. This is a valid worry, especially in light of the ongoing initiatives to improve the accessibility and safety of the road to Ladakh.
The effects of tourism’s exponential development
According to official statistics, there were 527 visitors to Ladakh in 1974, including 500 international and 27 domestic tourists.
About half a century later, the number of visitors is expected to reach 4.5 lakh (450,000) between January 1 and August 31 of 2022.
There were an unprecedented amount of visitors to Leh this summer, with official figures showing a growth of almost 100% from last year. Over the course of two months (June and July), Leh saw as many as 2.5 lakh (250,000) tourists. With a local population of only 30,870 as of the 2011 census, Leh city alone saw roughly twice as many tourists as the surrounding Leh district of nearly 1.33 lakh (133,000).
“This is too much tourism for a town already sensitive to the climate problem,” said Alex Jensen, a member of the non-governmental organization Local Futures working in Ladakh on responsible tourism.
According to Jensen’s interview with Mongabay-India, the success of Bollywood films like “3 Idiots,” which was shot in Ladakh, the improvement in road infrastructure, and the government’s promotion programs have all contributed to Leh’s rise to prominence as a domestic tourism hotspot.
While this is fantastic news for the tourism industry as a whole, it does come with certain drawbacks. Tourists, for instance, produce a great deal of trash, which places further strain on the region’s already delicate ecosystem, as Jensen explained. As many as 30,000 used plastic bottles are discarded here every day during the tourist seasons. Everyone can see the evidence in the trash heap,” he continued.
He noted that the local government has made some modest steps to provide access to water replenishing choices, such as water ATMs, but that these facilities are underutilized. He also noted that unless the sale of bottled water was prohibited in the area, the initiative to provide water refill stations would be fruitless.
Jensen added that there has been a rise in building as a result of the need for more lodging and dining options in Leh. There were 12,474 available beds in Leh in 2016, but as of July 7, 2022, that number has risen to 17,104. There has been a 145% increase in the number of restaurants between 2016 and 2022, from 57 to 140, while there has been an almost 70% increase in the number of hotels/guest houses/homestays, from 520 to 881.
As a result, there has been a rise in the need for resources like fuel and water. The majority of lodging establishments use borewells to tap into underground water supplies for guest use, and septic tanks to dispose of wastes. Community’s reliance on the commercial food system for sustenance and lessens the incentive or need to recycle organic material (including human waste) into the soil.
Several issues, few quick fixes
The increasing number of tourists and the resulting increase in trash has other negative consequences.
According to Ujjwal Jagithta, a researcher at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives in Ladakh (HIAL) in charge of tourism, Leh was formerly well-known for its eco-friendly lifestyle. He made this claim in an interview with Mongabay-India. Here, a lot of things have shifted about.
The current garbage processing plant cannot keep up with the daily waste production, so waste management has become increasingly difficult. She explained that in the past, people in Ladakh rarely produced waste because everything was recycled or used as farm manure.
Tourist demand has led to the replacement of dry toilets with water-based flush toilets, increasing water use, Jagithta, corroborating the findings of a 2019 study by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), a Leh-based Organization. According to a study conducted by LEDeG and the international NGO Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association (BORDA), the city of Leh uses only about 5 MLD of water per day during the summer for household use (excluding outdoor watering and building construction), but the city’s actual demand is 7.4 MLD or higher.
Despite assurances from Tsewang Gyalson, chief planning officer of Leh, tankers bring water to more than 2,000 homes in the city.
The issue of the quality of the subsurface water was also brought to light. According to the report, 90% of Leh’s water supply comes from snowmelt carried by surface streams (known as yuras) and the remaining 10% comes from natural springs.
Nonetheless, these days, 70% of Leh’s aquifers supply the city’s residential water needs. There is no attempt or plan to monitor ground water quality or any intense effort to prevent its pollution,” the report noted, despite the fact that this water is becoming progressively poisoned.
Leh’s director of LEDeG, Eshey Tondup, told Mongabay-India that the city may face a severe water shortage in the next several years due to a combination of factors, including rising tourism and diminished snowfall.
Extreme temperatures throughout the summer and rapidly melting glaciers are only two examples of the effects of global warming that may already be observed. Increases in local pollution from an influx of tourist vehicles are making the situation worse, Tondup warned.
Tondup noted that water conservation strategies have to be pursued more actively in order to overcome the impending issues, despite the fact that projects like artificial glaciers are being conducted in Leh to meet the water needs.
He said that LEDeG was already raising consciousness among B&B and innkeepers to encourage guests to use dry toilets instead of the more water-intensive flush variety.
But as Jensen of Local Futures points out, mindful and responsible individual efforts will remain far short of the task of securing a sustainable and liveable future in Leh unless there are significant policy shifts to regulate everything from construction expansion, plastic packaged products, flights per day, total number of tourists, etc.