Swachh Bharat Mission forced Ladakh to face hard truths about waste management, find traditional solutions

Rinchen Angmo | Mar 16, 2019 | 9 min read



By Rinchen Angmo Chumikchan

We need to think seriously about the consequences of using flush water toilets,” said Phunchok Dolma from Phay village in Ladakh. “The traditional dry compost toilet is a better option as it uses no water and the waste generated can be used as manure in agriculture".

This debate on tradition versus modernity in toilet technology has, of late, become intense in Ladakh, as it is directly linked to both availability of clean drinking water as demand goes up and pollution of scarce ground water resources. A region closed to outsiders till 1974, the large influx of tourists, which exceeded three lakh in 2018, has no doubt given a big boost to the local economy. Thousands of youths are engaged in tourism-related activities like guides, helpers, travel agents and taxi drivers.

The opposite side of the coin is the ecological damage done to this once isolated and pristine region by the haphazard increase in building hotels, cafes and other tourist facilities, with many families, especially in Leh, converting their agricultural fields into hotels and guest houses.

The adverse impact of blindly catering to this increasing influx of tourists without correspondent modern sanitation, waste and water management practices is only now getting increased attention. The exposure to the outside world has brought some changes in traditional local practices like sanitation. For long, Ladakhis used dry compost toilets which uses no water and can function in the region’s freezing winter temperatures. This is now being increasingly replaced by the western flush toilet, which is polluting ground water resources. “Locals have problems in using flush water toilet since they are used to traditional dry compost toilet,” said Urgain Dolker, a local Ladakhi. “Besides, Ladakh lacks a proper sewage management and treatment system”.

Many hoteliers said that while foreigners prefer using dry compost toilets and appreciate the local ways of preserving the environment, domestic tourists prefer flush toilets. Officials cite maintenance as a major challenge when it comes to dry compost toilets. Last year, the municipal committee experimented using a bio-digestor chemical for the compost manure, but the experiment failed due to the region’s extreme temperatures.

Zakir Hussain, District Panchayat Officer, Leh, said dry compost toilets were included in the Swachh Bharat programme as it was not possible to construct flush toilets in far-flung areas due to harsh climatic conditions. “The problem in urban areas is where to dump the compost manure?” said Zakir Hussain. “Changing weather patterns also makes flush toilets more suitable for urban areas”. Leh’s rural department has constructed 4,390 toilets - both flush and compost - since October 2014 under Swachh Bharat Mission, Zakir Hussain added.

“The problem of toilets in a fast-growing town like Leh is a big one,” said Becky Norman, who has done research on dry compost toilets through the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). And since there is little understanding of the difference between soak pits and septic tanks, most hotels in Leh and guest houses have soak pits, which seeps into the ground water areas. The Leh Municipal Committee recently made it mandatory for every hotel and guest house to have a septic tank and to clean it twice a year. The municipal department currently has two suction tankers and is planning to buy two more.

Becky Norman feels there is a need to create awareness about the pros of local compost toilet. “For many tourists, a seat on a dry composting is a fine solution, especially if they understand how water toilets pollute and dry composting toilets actually support the local organic ecosystem”. But many locations in Leh town are too crowded to make composting toilets easy. “However, in Ladakh’s villages, it would be very easy to design nice composting toilets for village guest houses and hotels,” said Becky Norman. “They can have a seat and a nice clean room for the user. In many locations, it is even possible to design attached bathrooms with composting toilets”.

The amount of faecal sludge generated in Leh has also increased over the years. Wastewater generated from hotels, individual households and army camps have all contributed to this. Faecal sludge is now being treated at a Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) at Bombgarh, set up in August 2017, which has so far treated 27,12500 litres of waste water. The treated wastewater is used in agriculture. The Leh FSTP is India’s first public-private partnership in faecal sludge management. Another FSTP in Agling is likely to be operational soon. 

Rural Leh was declared ODF free in August, 2017 while Leh Urban Local Body and Jammu and Kashmir State was declared ODF in September 2016. Census records show an increase in Leh’s population from 27,423 in 1981 to 45,671 in 2011. In Leh, many rented accommodations do not provide toilet facilities to tenants which is the reason for open defecation in Leh town. However, in rural areas, every household has its own compost toilet. In fact, the first thing Ladakhis decide before constructing a house is where to locate the toilet.

Leh’s BJP president Dorje Angchuk, admits sanitation can be an important issue in the 2019 elections if social activists play an active role in highlighting these issues. “Political parties should understand what the public demands and act on it,” said Dorje Angchuk. “The success of Swachh Bharat mission in the region will definitely act in favour of BJP”.

Not surprisingly, Tsering Namgyal, Congress district committee president in Leh has a different viewpoint. “Sanitation and waste disposal system is not a major concern for political parties for the 2019 elections in Ladakh,” said Tsering Namgyal. “It is a work in progress”.

Dr. Ishey Namgyal, President Municipal Committee, Leh said that Ladakhi culture is such that it is already ODF. “We are planning to run a pilot project where toilets similar to the ones in Druk Padma Karpo school (which runs on solar energy) will be built in some public places in Leh”. A small school in Shey, the waste collected here is covered in sand and turned into manure in a pit below which is consequently bought by farmers.

While sanitation and pollution of ground water sources is getting some attention, the availability of potable water in Leh and other areas of Ladakh is another serious problem that needs immediate attention. According to an assessment on water supply and demand in Leh town carried out by NGO, Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), using government and other available research data, total water supply from various sources is 4.5 MLD----2.01 MLD comes from the Indus River, 0.9 MLD from springs and 2.4 MLD from bore wells. (While the total water extracted via bore well, which is 4000 in the district is 2.9 MLD (42% of usage), the total supply of water in Leh town is 5.1 MLD ( 55 percent of usage)---these figures do not tally with the earlier figures. Please clarify).

The presence of migrant labourers, especially in summer, adds to the challenge. LEDeG data classifies water usage in Leh city as 0.9 MLD by tourists, 3.9 MLD by residents and 1.5 MLD by workers, adding up to 6.3 MLD. Which means demand for potable water exceeds supply by 1.8 MLD. The LEDeG report adds that water supply is expected to increase to 12MLD in 2022 and 15 MLD in 2027.

In the absence of strict government regulation and monitoring of groundwater extraction, many springs have dried up.  “The water table in Leh town is between 100 and 150 feet and around 300 feet in other areas,” said Thinless Dorjay, Operation Assistant under Liveable Leh Project, LEDeG. “The underground water table in Leh is not stable and confined to the lowlands”.

Besides depletion of groundwater resources, the other serious problem is pollution of this water. “We tested the groundwater with the help of Technical University of Munich,” said Fariha Yousuf, trainings assistant at LEDeG. “We tested for the presence of pollutants like nitrate, chloride, and E. coli.  Out of 110 samples, we found 100 samples positive for Chloride, a confirmation that it is due to wastewater contamination. E. coli was found in 14 of the 16 samples tested. Other substances like caffeine and pharmaceuticals were found in other samples”.

Mismanagement rather than declining water resources is the main reason for the water crisis in Leh town, said Fariha Yousuf. “Nearly 35 per cent of the water is wasted,” said Fariha. “There is no system to check where the water goes. Borewells are managed by private agencies. No one knows how much water we are extracting and how much is being is consumed. There is no metering system”.

Then there is the growing problem of waste disposal. Leh town generates 35-40 tonnes of garbage in the summer season, primarily because of tourism, and 5-6 tonnes in winter. Till recently, Ladakh did not even have a concept of waste management. The increasing challenges have forced the administration to think seriously about garbage disposal and waste management and have come up with technologies for primary waste segregation.

Now that more and more tourists visit Ladakh to take in its scenic beauty and spiritual essence, problems and challenges in water management, sanitation, sewage treatment and waste disposal will only increase. The need is not only for strict regulation but also to make all stakeholders aware of the issues and prepare sustainable and responsible tourism and local management policies.


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