Managing water supply
|When tourists arrive in large numbers and consume water excessively…
TRADITIONAL WISDOM: In Leh town of Ladakh, surface water which flowed when the glaciers melted during summers formed natural ponds called ‘zing’
It can get cold in Leh. Temperatures of minus 20 C are not unheard of. Pipes full of water will simply burst in winter. The town is in many ways typical of small town India and in many ways it is not. Weather-wise, it most definitely is not. The population of the town is about 20,000 but take the military presence here and the tourists who throng the place come June and the population can soar to 60,000-70,000. Managing water and sanitation for a tourist population which demands hot water, long showers and a flush toilet becomes a challenge.
Traditionally, the town managed with surface water which flowed with the glacier melt during summers and collected in small ponds called ‘zings’. The toilet was also a dry composting toilet. No water was required for flushing. You just did your job in a small chamber and covered it with earth.
At the end of the year you collected it and took it to your fields along with farmyard manure and this became the fertiliser for the crops you grew. A bath happened once in a week in summer and maybe once a month in winter. Water demand was low and estimated at about 60 litres per person per day.
But came the tourists and things dramatically changed. Aggressive promotion of the place and its surroundings by the Tourism Department has seen a steady rise in both foreign and domestic tourists. Domestic tourists for the first time overtook the number of foreign tourists arriving in Leh. Farmlands are converting into guest homes and hotels. Borewells are being dug all over the place. First to depths of 100 feet below ground level and now to 200 feet.
In the absence of an underground drainage system septic tanks in every resort discharge the effluent into the ground. The tourist expects the same comfort as at home and hot showers and flush toilets result in 130 to 150 litres of water per person per day.
The end result is water shortage in many places and dependence to the extent of 80 per cent of the town’s needs on groundwater.
Several initiatives are emerging to make water sustainable for the town. A NGO is working towards building a large reservoir upstream using local knowledge and skills. This will provide sufficient water to the farmers all the way downstream in the Leh valley.
Another NGO with the redoubtable Chawang Norphel, the glacier man of Ladakh, is trying to built artificial glaciers to hold water in winter and release it gradually in summer. LEDEG, a vey old and experienced NGO, is working to understand groundwater better and take steps to involve the community and institutions in managing groundwater .
The government too has drawn up a large project to manage solid waste and liquid waste better. It does a herculean job in pumping water from borewells close to the Indus river up 300 metres in three stages. When electricity is not available diesel pumps are used to lift the water for distribution in the town.
The tourist season is short and lasts for four months. Leh’s economic engine now runs on tourism and the army. Responsible tourism is being encouraged by many groups such as the WWF, especially with its green hiker programme. Small shops refill water bottles, thus preventing disposal of plastic bottles, and green organic products abound.
Water wisdom lies in understanding local issues emerging around water and finding local solutions. Building the right institutions too is crucial. Institutions which have the knowledge and concern, responsibility and accountability, work with local knowledge and wisdom but bring in outside expertise when required.
Working in hostile conditions such as Leh and finding solutions is extremely rewarding. Let us hope the partnership of citizens, NGOs and institutions find a way for sustainable water management in Leh.