Eco Tourism Initiatives
Article about cleaning Tso Moriri Lake year 2005
As with most of the most beautiful places in the World, the increasing ease of global travel and adventurousness of travelers has brought a tourist boom to Ladakh. Despite it's remote location and generally inhospitable climate the last ten years have seen an ever growing influx of tourists over the brief Ladakhi summer season. As is often the case the rush to accommodate these tourists and facilitate their access to the remoter areas has lacked planning and places a burgeoning strain on the fragile ecosystems of the region. Therefore it was with no great surprise that I saw a poster calling for volunteers to help collect and remove the accumulated garbage from the camping areas near to Tso Moriri and Tso Kar lakes.
Organized by ALTOA (All Ladakh Tour Operators Association ) the initiative aimed to bring together tour operators, their staff and tourists for the clean up, and raise awareness of the problems of uncontrolled tourism before it is too late. Clearly the removal of non-biodegradable rubbish from these sensitive areas is only a small step in the right direction and plans for sustainable tourism development must follow if the wildlife and natural beauty are to be preserved for the future.
After a few hectic days of planning we set off in a bus for the seven hour journey from Leh to Tso Moriri, an International mixed bag of tourists, Ladakhi tour operators and guides and Nepali cooks and helpers, and we were joined by a truck from the LEDEG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group ) to bring the garbage back to Leh. We arrived at Tso Moriri at dusk and the scale of the task that faced us was not apparent as we hastily set up camp before the chill of the night descended upon us.
In the morning a group camped near to us were packing up to leave, but when it was suggested to them to take their rubbish with them both the staff and the tourists were totally uncooperative. This kind of attitude, that tourists can come and enjoy the beauty of nature but no care at all what detrimental impact they have on it, must change and quickly.
Of course tourists should know better, and naturally some do, but they must insist that the staff leave the camping sites as clean or even cleaner than before they arrived. The standard practice of heaping up the garbage and attempting to burn it just does not work, particularly with the increasingly large volumes of glass and plastic bottles and tins.
Burning plastic gives off toxic fumes polluting the atmosphere and of course tins and glass don't really burn. What we found dotted around the once beautiful little valley were blackened heaps of partially burnt rubbish, plastic bottles usually melt rather than burn completely and if the fire is hot enough glass bottles shatter leaving lots of jagged pieces for foraging animals to injure themselves on. Staff need to be educated as to the long term damage to the environment (and therefore their livelihoods) that they are contributing to, and their employers need to make sure that they bring the garbage back with them to Leh where much of it can be reused or recycled.
As we moved down the valley towards the lake we came across the more recent menace of semi-permanent camps, where much larger tents are erected and left up for the entire season. Groups of tourists come and go apparently oblivious of the fact that the scarce pastureland that they are camped on will not be able to recover from being covered over for months, or that the effluent from their toilets situated right next to the stream may well seep into and pollute the water which everybody has to use. In fact a few years ago there was an outbreak of disease in the nearby village of Korzok and they now have to get their water from much further upstream. These semi-permanent camps are of little or no benefit to the local villagers and are totally unsustainable; the sooner they are banned the better. Villagers should be encouraged to add one or two rooms to their houses (not difficult using traditional mud-brick construction) to provide "homestay" accommodation for tourists, which, as well as reducing their impact on the environment, provides local people with a financial incentive to help keep the area clean. At least simple mud-brick storage bunkers should be built, ideally with the garbage pre-separated into glass, metal and plastic bins, to facilitate recycling and disposal in Leh . It could also be possible to build 'Community Solar Showers' as the villagers at Skiu in the Markha Valley have done with the assistance of NGO's.
Many things are possible, but it seems the birdlife has already taken flight, fortunately around the lake rather than out of the neighborhood. As we passed through the ugly fence built to prevent encroachment on the wetlands (a contribution from WWF) there was hardly a bird to be seen in the rubbish strewn estuary. Whether because of rubbish, pollution, the fence or sheer numbers of people the birdlife that I am reliably informed used to inhabit the estuary have all decided that relocation is the name of the game. If paths towards sustainable tourism aren't taken now then they may decide to relocate a lot further away and Ladakh will join that ever growing global list of tourist casualty zones. Steps in the right direction are needed now to prevent that from happening. Tread lightly on the Earth. Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.