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The opening of the Atal tunnel at the Rohtang Pass in October 2020 has facilitated an unprecedented increase in vehicular traffic in the region, over the past two years. Most of these vehicles are likely to be with tourists going towards the city of Leh in Ladakh or Himachal Pradesh’s scenic Lahaul valley.

The traffic inflow from Rohtang Pass, before the opening of the highway tunnel, was 4.5 lakh vehicles between January 2018 and October 2020, when the tunnel opened to the public.

After that, over the next 22 months, from October 2020 to August 2022, 17 lakh vehicles crossed the Atal tunnel, shows data from the Himachal Pradesh police. In effect, in the two years since the tunnel opened, traffic inflow increased by approximately 400% compared to the two years before the tunnel opened.

This year, 7.62 lakh vehicles have already passed through the tunnel in the eight months between January 1 and August 19, the data showed.

Before the tunnel, the popular route to tourist spots in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, was via the Manali-Leh highway, which would regularly be closed, sometimes up to six months a year, between November and April, owing to weather conditions.

“There is an unprecedented increase in traffic inflow ever since the nine-kilometre-long Atal Tunnel was made open for the public. Besides, tourists are now travelling even during winters, which is happening for the first time,” Manav Verma, Superintendent of Police, Lahaul and Spiti, told Mongabay-India.

Commenting on the nature of the traffic, Verma said that it was hard to identify but he estimated that 80% of the traffic was of tourists, mostly Leh-bound and some towards the Lahaul valley.

This heavy flow of tourist traffic through the Atal tunnel (also known as the Rohtang tunnel) constructed above 10,000 feet from sea level, has non-profits and environmentalists concerned about the impact of the rising tourists and vehicles on the sensitive Himalayan region. This concern is also given that there are further efforts to make the route to Ladakh seamless and navigable in all weather conditions.

Credit: Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Exponential growth in tourism

When Ladakh first opened for tourism in 1974, as per the government records, there were 527 tourists – 500 foreign visitors and 27 domestic visitors.

Now, almost 50 years later, the number of tourists has grown to 4.5 lakh this year, in eight months from January 1 to August 31 .

The number of tourists in Leh this summer, broke all previous records, according to official data. As many as 2.5 lakh people visited Leh for tourism in just two months, June and July. That is eight times more visitors than Leh city’s local population of around 30,870 people (2011 Census) and around twice the population of Leh district which is approximately 1.33 lakh.

“This is too much tourism for a town already vulnerable to the climate crisis,” commented Alex Jensen, member of non-profit Local Futures, working in Ladakh on responsible tourism.

Jensen told Mongabay-India that with popular Bollywood films, particularly 3 Idiots that featured Ladakh along with ease in road connectivity and promotion policies of the government, Leh has emerged as a top tourist destination among domestic tourists.

While this is great for tourism, there is a flip side to this influx. For example, a large quantity of waste is generated by tourists, taking a toll on already fragile ecology, said Jensen. “On peak tourism days, as many as 30,000 empty plastic bottles are being generated here. Evidence is for everyone to see in the dumping ground,” he added.

He said there have been some small efforts by the local administration to provide more water refilling options, such as the water ATMs, but they are hardly used. “Unless packaged water is banned here, the effort (of water refilling options) appears ineffectual,” he added.

Jensen also pointed out that there has been an increase in construction due to demand for more hotels and restaurants in Leh. In 2016, the total bed capacity in Leh was 12,474, which has increased to 17,104 as on July 7, 2022. During this period, the total number of hotels/guest houses/homestays has increased by almost 70% from 520 to 881, while the number of restaurants have grown by 145% from 57 in 2016 to 140 in 2022.

This has, in turn, increased the demand for energy and water. Most hotels and homestays are drawing groundwater by installing borewells to serve tourists and depositing wastewater in septic tanks.

“Additionally, this construction frenzy is rapidly replacing and displacing farm fields, further reducing not only open space but permanently removing land from food production, thus increasing dependency of the town on the commercial food system for sustenance and reducing the incentive or need to recycle organic material (including human waste) into the soil,” he added.

Problems plenty, solutions few

The growing tourists and associated waste has other fallout issues.

Ujjwal Jagithta, researcher, responsible for tourism, Himalayan Institute of Alternatives in Ladakh, told Mongabay-India that Leh was once famous for its sustainable way of living. Things have changed drastically here.

Managing waste has become a huge challenge as the current processing plant is unable to handle all the daily generation of waste. Earlier , people in Ladakh hardly generated waste as all their waste was either recycled or used as farm manure, she said.

“Dry toilets have been replaced with water-based flush toilets because of demand from tourists, thereby increasing water consumption, “ Jagithta, confirming what Leh-based non-profit, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, had revealed in its study in 2019.

The Ladakh Ecological Development Group, in partnership with the non-profit Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association, had found that total water used in Leh for domestic purposes (excluding gardening and construction purpose) is 5 million litres per day in summer whereas the actual demand is 7.4 MLD or even higher.

While Leh’s chief planning officer Tsewang Gyalson claimed there was no water shortage in Leh, the report revealed that over 2,000 households in Leh get water supply through tankers.

It also raised serious concerns over quality issue of the underground water. The report claimed that traditionally, snow-melted water through surface streams, locally called yuras, provided 90% of water used by people of Leh and remaining 10% came from natural springs.

“Today, however, 92% of the domestic water is from underground sources, of which 70% is from Leh’s aquifers. This water is being increasingly contaminated, yet there is no effort or plan to monitor ground water quality or any intense effort to prevent its pollution,” the report added.

The director of Ladakh Ecological Development Group, Eshey Tondup told Mongabay-India that water is going to be major challenge for Leh in couple of years for number of reasons including increase in tourist footfall and less snowfall.

“The impact of global warming is already here as seen in extremely hot summer and fast receding of glaciers. The problem is getting worse due to increase in local pollution as a result of more inflow of tourist vehicles,” said Tondup

As experiments like artificial glaciers are being implemented in Leh to meet the water needs, Tondup said water conservation methods needed to be followed more aggressively to overcome the imminent challenges.

Ladakh Ecological Development Group, he said, is already creating awareness among homestays and guest house owners to reduce the water consumption by asking tourists to use dry toilets than water-based flush system.

But as Jensen of Local Futures puts it, unless there are serious policy shifts to regulate everything from construction expansion, plastic packaged products, flights per day, total number of tourists, etc., the individual efforts to be mindful and responsible will remain far from adequate for the task of securing a sustainable and liveable future in Leh.

Jagithta of Himalayan Institute of Alternatives said that often tourists indulge in jeep safaris and off-roading land up disturbing the habitat and stressing wildlife. “We need a wider debate in the society on responsible tourism to maintain a balance between economic and ecological needs,” he added.

This article was first published on Mongabay.