Tourists’ toilet habits flush Himalayan town dry

The water table in Ladakh, northern India, is dropping alarmingly as a tourist invasion is changing toilet habits

Tanzin Dorje can remember a time when he could drink straight from the stream that runs through Ladakh’s main town Leh, in northern India.

“Today, such a sight has become a dream,” he sighs. The huge number of tourists Ladakh receives now has not only changed peoples’ outlook, but both water quality and availability.  

It was only in 1974 that the Indian government first allowed foreign tourists into this once-remote part of the Himalayas, bordered by China and Pakistan. Tourist numbers have soared since then. Mehboob Ali, assistant director of tourism at Leh, says that the town alone received close to 200,000 tourists this year – four times the size of the town’s resident population.  

Such an influx has changed local lifestyles. Mohammad Hussain, chief agriculture officer of the area, says the tourism boom has made more than half the residents of Leh turn away from farming, either partly or entirely.

“When you witness something [rewarding] happening around you, you can’t remain entirely unfazed,” says Hussain. “It is human nature.”   

More and more residents are now setting up restaurants or guest houses. But, as Dorje points out, the tourism boom comes at a cost. It is eroding Ladakh’s traditions that once helped its people live in harmony with nature.  

“For example, we used to have dry toilets everywhere. But they are now slowly being replaced with water-flush toilets. This goes totally against nature, as Ladakh has very little water,” said Dorje.

Tashi Tundup, executive engineer in Leh’s Public Health Engineering department, says, “I am a great lover of traditional dry toilets. They may not be so pleasing, but they suit us.” This senior bureaucrat uses a dry toilet at home, hoping to set an example.

Lobzang Sultim, executive director of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), says that dry toilets have other advantages too. “Its contents are later used in agricultural land. Above all, it is quite easy to use in a Leh winter when temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius. LEDeG, a NGO, urges people to use dry toilets as an eco-friendly measure.

Some residents agree. Homemaker Dechen Chosto has no plan to replace her dry toilet with a water-flush toilet. “We have been using it quite happily. It needs no water; doesn’t stink and we can use the compost.”

In many parts of Ladakh, especially in and around Leh, the water table is going down fast, warns Sultim. “This is going to create serious problems in the near future. This is a very dangerous trend, given that precipitation in Leh is quite nominal. We have to put a premium on our groundwater.”

Most of the streams in and around Leh carry glacier-melt water. Residents say stream discharge is decreasing. This is making it even more difficult to recharge the water table, especially when all hotels and guest houses, and over 80% of homes, use groundwater. LEDeG has recently done a survey on groundwater usage in Leh. Initial results show 375 hotels in the town are extracting 852,100 liters of water a day.

All this worries Dorje. “People are resorting to measures which are not in harmony with nature,” he says. “Digging of bore-wells should be banned and all the practices in contrast to our traditions must stop if we are to survive.”