Ladakh: Water Security and Climate Change

By: Staff Reporter
Studies show that 35 per cent of Ladakh’s glaciers will have disappeared in two decades. Nothing reflects the dismal situation more clearly than the rising water scarcity that is affecting the lives of every inhabitant of the region.

Ladakh, India’s only cold desert, is one of the hottest tourist destinations in the subcontinent today. Sample this – as many as 75,000 tourists visited this scenic district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) last year, a 100 per cent increase in the last five years (around 35,091 tourists came in 2004). This is indeed a meteoric rise from the time the spectacular landscape was first thrown open to tourists in 1974. “At that time, Ladakh had a mere 400 tourists coming in. The locals were encouraged to welcome visitors into their homes in exchange for money. This was important since there were no guest houses. Things have changed since then. Today, there are around 200 guest houses and hotels in Ladakh. There will be two new three-star hotels coming up in Leh very soon,” informs Mehboob Ali, Tourist Officer, Directorate of Tourism, J&K. Connectivity to this remote region too is no longer an issue. Leh has about 14 flights every week – two for Jammu, one for Srinagar and the rest for Delhi. “For a place that remains closed for about eight months in a year, this development is very good,” remarks Ali, adding with obvious satisfaction that all major private airlines operate in Ladakh.

Shrinking Glaciers Surely all this commerce should translate into better lives for local people? Not really. An ecologically sensitive area, Ladakh is witnessing a burst of growth that its fragile ecosystem is unable to handle. On the one hand, the glaciers in the region are shrinking alarmingly – the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) predicts that 35 per cent of Ladakh’s glaciers would have disappeared in two decades. On the other, the impact of unregulated tourism is taking its toll on natural resources. Nothing reflects the dismal situation more clearly than the severe water scarcity in the region that is affecting the lives of ordinary Ladakhis.

Sanitation The traditional Ladakhi systems of water management and sanitation were in greater harmony with nature. For excretory purposes, a compost pit, a structure involving no deployment of water and thereby nullifying the need for sewers or drains, was used. And water from streams, fed by glaciers, was used for drinking purposes until the recent past. But ‘development’ has brought with it a more westernised lifestyle and with it a host of problems. With most hotels using water closets (flush toilets), water consumption has increased manifold. Also, due to a lack of drainage system, sewage water is being let into once pristine streams, thereby polluting the source of drinking water for local inhabitants.

Potable Water For the first time ever, Ladakhis have also had to deal with a severe water shortage. There is limited supply and, of course, the lion’s share is being diverted for the tourism sector. Sonam Jorgyes, the outgoing Director, Ladakh Ecological Development Group, observes, “The tourists take a bath every day and use flush toilets, which consume about 12 to 15 litres of water with every use. No wonder Ladakh is facing water shortage.”

To overcome the water crisis, hoteliers have resorted to indiscriminate digging of borewells. Lobzang Tsultim, Executive Director, Leh Nutrition Project, says that so far, there is no legislation or regulatory system in place to tackle the issue. As a result, Ladakh’s water table is declining rapidly. Ladakh receives extremely low rainfall of about 10mm every year, yet its people managed sustainably. Today, the district is slowly turning water starved. Tsultim adds, “The mainstay of Ladakh is subsistence agriculture. With such negligible rainfall, we have to depend on the glaciers for water supply. Water from glaciers feeds the groundwater. However, the glaciers are now receding and people are digging borewells. People have not been able to cultivate much of late because of the non-availability of water.” Confirms Nisa Khatoon, a resident of Nubra, “We are experiencing water shortage. Almost every family in Ladakh has its own farm where the family cultivates its vegetables. That has taken a beating with several farms lying unirrigated. Also, there has been an onslaught of new kinds of pests, which we have never come across before.” Attributable perhaps to climate change.

Way Forward despite all the bad news, there have been some consistent efforts to rectify the situation. While some Ladakhis are showing the way by leading an ecofriendly lifestyle; others are working to develop new methods and technologies for eco-renewal; and still others are finding ways to merge ecoconcerns with the requirements of a burgeoning tourism industry.  Jorgyes, a follower of the traditional Ladakhi way of life, is today doing her bit for her home region. “I lead a very simple life – use a compost pit and take a bath only once in two or three days as the weather here doesn’t really warrant a daily bath,” she says. Chewang Norphel, a former government civil engineer, is credited to have created artificial glaciers, the first being in 1987. However, many of his glaciers were destroyed during a flood that affected the region a couple of years ago.

While tourism is a major cause for ecological concern, there is the larger reality of climate change. The imminent environmental crisis calls for changes of lifestyle and the way business is conducted. Since tourism has emerged as an important source of livelihood in the region, it is vital that it made as environment friendly as possible. Some tourist agencies in Leh have taken a first step by putting forward a model of engagement that ensures that even in periods of high density tourist traffic, local resources remain protected. Many locals are once again welcoming people into their homes, showing them the path to an ecofriendly life, which includes the use of the compost pit and solar energy for heating water.

This is just the beginning. There is a lot that needs to be done.

By- Shobha S.V.

Article contribution Women’s Feature Service, New Delhi


Expert Speak —Chewang Norphel

The 74 year old retired civil engineer, Chewang Norphel is fondly known as the Glacier Man of Ladakh. Coming from a middle class family of Leh, Norphel joined the Rural Development Department of Jammu and Kashmir in Ladakh (1960) as a civil engineer.

Are the glaciers in Ladakh declining – at what rate?

Yes! Undeniably the small glaciers in Ladakh are on the verge of disappearance. If the current rate of melting and shrinking of glaciers continues the region of Ladakh would sure be the first on the planet earth to suffer the brunt of global warming. Although no scientific work has yet been done to measure the loss of glaciers around the region, yet people, based on their generation of experience and observations of the glaciers all around Ladakh apprehend disappearance of the glaciers within decades in case the rapid recession rate continues in future. It would certainly be a blunder if this dangerous climatic trend is brushed aside attributing it to year to year variation in weather.


You have been titled the Glacier Man – how did you create a glacier?

Artificial glacier, which I innovated about two decades ago, is a simple and cheap technology suited for any region with similar geoclimatic and topographical context. Its a technique for water conservation at high elevations and thereby slowing down of glacial melt – thus bringing life to cold deserts, renewing the traditional heritage of sustainability. Water during 6-7 winter months is drained into river and go waste in absence of any agriculture activity due to the intensely cold weather. The waste water is diverted at higher altitude: 4500 meters to 5000 meters to a ridge with a wide slope and through a network of appropriately designed structures the water is made to flow in small quantities down the ridge. Over a period of 6-7 winter months huge reserves of solid ice is formed all along the ridge down to a few thousand meter gorge below, aptly called ‘artificial glacier’. The Leh Nutrition Project (LNP), a Leh based NGO, that I am associated with for more than a decade, has received some support from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India for artificial glaciers.

Has the Government of India supported any similar projects in the area?

No other agency has received any support from the Government of India exclusively for similar projects.


Have you seen a change in the usage of water in Ladakh?

With the increase in population and a market driven economy there is greater demand for water. Due to inadequate and irregular precipitation and inadequacy of surface water people have started exploring groundwater potential. Lots of measures are also being taken by the Government for harvesting every drop of water for sustainable use.


Is there also an accompanying change in occupation?

Many people in the villages find agriculture has become uneconomical and unviable, leading to diminishing land utilisation and crop productivity due to a number of factors. Many people migrate in search of alternate employment opportunities.


What is the way forward?

A community based region specific water conservation strategy is the need of the hour. Also, adequate recourses need to be provided to the communities to mobilise and activate their interest in utilising resources for water management, conservation and utilisation.



Expert Speak —Dr Bahadur Kotlia

Professor of paleo – climatology in the Department of Geology, The Durham Kumaun University, Nanital, Dr Kotlia has undertaken nearly 500 glacier studies using extensive field work and GPS technology.

Is it true that the glaciers of Ladakh (e.g.Khardung glacier) have thinned? Mountaineering guides, for example, say glaciers which once needed sophisticated ice craft to traverse can now be negotiated by trekkers.

Ladakh which is currently under arid or semi-arid environment is likely to experience water stress conditions, decreased soil moisture and desert expansion. A general decrease in precipitation in a linear fashion is observed. In the last few years, the impact of global climate change has been increasingly visible in Ladakh. Rainfall patterns have been changing, small glaciers and permanent snow fields are melting and temperature rise has been affecting water runoff in the rivers. At times, the higher winter precipitation is followed by the lower summer precipitation which clearly indicates the erratic behaviour of precipitation in Ladakh in the last century (see graphs beside). Khardung Pass which used to be completely covered by a layer of thick snow about 4 meters (in July) until 1995 is witnessing a new predicament. The Pass had no snow in July, 2009.

Is Ladakh seeing less snowfall due to changing climatic regimes?

Yes, undoubtedly. In the past, Lakadh also used to get a small amount of precipitation from the southwest monsoon (perhaps about 5 per cent) and at least 70 per cent moisture from westerlies. Today it receives about 50 per cent moisture from westerlies and almost nothing from southwest monsoon.


What are issues that, you feel needs to be highlighted by policy makers for this area?

Water conserving policies in any case is the most viable option. Artificial glaciers (by storing water being channelled from melting glaciers) is another workable solution. Perhaps these are the only ways that Ladakh can quench its thirst.



Official Speak —Dr B M Jha

Chairman of Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Ministry of Water Resources, Dr B M Jha is entrusted to provide scientific inputs for management, exploration, assessment, and regulation of groundwater resources of the country.

What has been the water table scenario in the district of Ladakh?

Groundwater level in the region of Ladakh varies widely due to a large variation in topography. The depth of the water level is shallow in valley fill areas and deeper in the hilly areas of Ladakh.
The depth of the water level ranges from 1.3 at Zorawar Fort to 43.36 meter below ground level (m bgl) at ITBP II site. The scope of groundwater development is limited to favourable areas along the valleys and plains only. Springs are the main sources of water supply. The analysis of spring data reveals that yield from these springs ranges from 1.5 (e.g. Yulkum) to 290 litres per second (lps) (e.g. Boudang). These springs are normally used for domestic purposes, but also serve as a source of irrigation. Springs mark the prominent seepage/contact zone (valley fill deposits with the older formations and weak zones, such as fractures, faults and thrust zones) of the area that receives recharge from glaciers located at higher altitudes. Hot water springs have also been identified in the areas located near Panamic and Changlum along thrust zones.


Is the district of Ladakh facing increased water shortage in the recent years – can tourism be a cause?

There is no water shortage as such due to the presence of perennial rivers and other water sources in Ladakh. The water available in perennial nala/rivers are mainly snow fed and its melting is directly related to discharge in nala/rivers in this area. The discharge varies from winter to summer.

However, Ladakh has hostile climatic conditions, rugged terrain coupled with unfavourable geological setting – that can, in instances, affect proper management of water supply in the region. Tourist influx is mainly during summer months and during this period the water sources have maximum discharge or flow due to thawing of snow, glacial melt etc. Serious efforts are being made by public health engineering and local bodies to sort out such hiccups in some pockets.


What management issues do you think can solve the problem?

CGWB is promoting water harvesting including roof top rainwater harvesting in hilly areas affected by water scarcity. Such practices can be adopted in the region of Ladakh, at few select locations. Further, snow water harvesting is also one of the management options for increasing water availability and at places can help recharge of ground water. This may thus increase the availability of water throughout the year.

Under the groundwater exploration programme of CGWB, 27 wells have been constructed in Ladakh since 1973, concentrated mainly in the Leh district.  Drilling depth of exploratory wells ranges from 10 to 86 m bgl,  The discharge in these wells  ranges from 197 to more than 2000 litres per minute. These wells may be suitably located in such areas to augment the water supply.


Does the creation of artificial glacier help solve the problem?

The concept of artificial glacier and its utility in managing the water supply requirement needs to be established. However, snow harvesting at places may be useful.



Be an eco-friendly tourist

Say ‘no’ to plastic: Avoid packaged water; refill your bottle with boiled/filtered water, or filter your own water with handheld filters or iodine drops. Where possible, avoid foods and other products packaged in plastic.

Save water: Use traditional Ladakhi compost toilets instead of flush toilets if available (most family-run guesthouses have one). Do not throw anything non-biodegradable or toxic in the toilets. Use natural detergents/soaps and an eco-friendly laundry service.

Save energy: Use solar hot water showers if available. Support establishments that use electricity from renewable sources of energy.

Be a responsible trekker: Plan your trek so that there is minimum environmental damage. Eliminate the possibility of waste creation on the trail. Choose trekking agencies that have made environmental responsibility and cultural sensitivity a priority. Try to be self sufficient when you are trekking through small villages. Wood is a scarce resource, so don’t use it!  Ladakh has a unique system of traditional medicine. All of its components come from nature. Please do not collect any plants, flowers or stones. Bury biodegradable waste on site.

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