Reaching Pangong Lake feels like reaching the edge of the world. It is six hours from Leh, Ladakh’s district headquarters in Jammu and Kashmir, crossing the Changla Pass, the second highest motorable road in the world. The deep blue lake stretches for 120 km, of which 60% lies in China. The endless brown mountains contrast with the blue and makes the lake come alive. Only the flapping of Buddhist prayer flags and the bone-chilling howling of the winds offer company.

In December, the edges of the lake start to freeze. By January, it is completely frozen and comes to an eerie standstill. The locals believe that there is a fixed date to freezing and unfreezing.

“By January 15, the entire lake is frozen,” said 56-year-old Tsering Sonam, who runs a cafe by the lake. “It unfreezes only on March 15. This has been the case for as long as I remember.”

His village is 15 km ahead of the lake and is one of the last villages on the Indian border. “Even after living here all these years, I still find the lake stunning,” he added.

Cut to summers and it’s not uncommon to see at least 300 cars, carrying 1,500 people, visiting the lake every day. According to Sonam, the number of cafes and tourists coming to the lake increases with the temperature. “I end up spending most of the evenings picking up plastic bottles and trash left behind by tourists during peak season,” said Sonam.

Pangong Lake stretches out for 120 km, straddling the border between India and China. Photo credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha/Mongabay

It started with ‘3 Idiots’

The lake remained obscure to the Indian tourist till 2010, when a popular Bollywood movie shot here was released. The Aamir Khan-starrer 3 Idiots was released in December 2009. For Rs 500, you can now rent a sari and a scooter similar to what was used in the movie to reenact the climax. “Before the movie, only around 600 people used to come in the summers,” said Sonam, running the only cafe during winters, when the temperatures barely go above freezing point. “The numbers have increased dramatically.”

Not just at the lake, tourism has boomed all across the desert district. “The movie was a turning point in Ladakh’s tourism history and its impact is beginning to show,” said Surya Ramachandran, a naturalist who runs a homestay in Ladakh. There are numbers to show for it. Data from the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Tourism compliments Sonam’s and Ramachandran’s observation. A year after the movie was released, the number of tourists visiting Ladakh increased nearly threefold, placing an unprecedented burden on the district’s water supplies, ecology and tradition.

Cafes at Pangong Lake inspired by the movie '3 Idiots'. Most of them are open only during summers, when locals say at least 1,500 people come everyday. Photo credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha/Mongabay

Little rain

Ladakh, being on the leeward side of the trans-Himalayan range and a cold desert, receives just about 100 mm of precipitation in a year. “The Himalayas block any rain from southwest monsoon, which the rest of the country enjoys,” said Rajan Kotru, regional programme manager specialising in transboundary landscapes with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental learning and knowledge-sharing centre serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya. “The region receives snow and rainfall only through western disturbances.”

This makes water a precious commodity. “Ladakhis, by nature, use very little water,” said Nordan Otzer, director of the Ladakh Ecological Development and Environmental Group. “They are accustomed to a life where water is scarce and even sacred. Our studies show that an average Ladakhi uses about 20 litres of water a day, compared to at least 75 litres used by tourists. The glacier on which Leh depends is estimated to melt completely in the next five to six years.”

Changla Pass, enroute to Pangong Lake. Photo credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha/Mongabay

Tourism was thrown open in 1974, when only 527 tourists arrived. Of them, only 27 were Indian. It rose gradually to 55,685 Indians in 2010, according to data obtained from the district’s tourism department. In 2011, the number shot up to 1.42 lakh people. In contrast, the number of foreign visitors increased from 36,000 to 38,000 in the same period.

“Every year, we see at least 25 to 30 new hotels and guest houses getting registered in Ladakh,” said Tsering Angmo, deputy director of Jammu and Kashmir Department of Tourism. “Some big hotels can consume as much as 5,000 litres of water in a single day.”

As of November 2017, there were 826 hotels and guesthouses, with 13,732 beds. “There are several more homestays that are not registered,” she added.

Experts say that precipitation is declining because to climate change. SN Mishra, a researcher from the Indian Air Force, found a clear declining trend in precipitation during winter months – which accounts for nearly 70% of all precipitation in the region. These geographical factors make water a rare commodity in the cold desert. “The influx of tourists has furthered burdened our water resources,” said Sonam Dawa, former chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “To supplement the growing water demand in Leh, we are now lifting water from the Indus river.”

Enroute Khardungla Pass, considered the highest motorable road in the world. Photo credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha/Mongabay

‘Need for tighter regulation’

Lift irrigation is an expensive process to provide for water. It involves using motors running on electricity or diesel to pump water from rivers, which are usually at a lower altitude compared to settlements.

“There are no long term solutions to get more water,” said Kotru. “Tourists need to be mindful of what they consume and the waste they generate. High altitude mountain ecology is very different from plains. For example, even organic waste can remain undecomposed for millenia due to sub-zero temperatures for most parts of the year. When this mixes with water sources, it further deteriorates the quality of water.”

Officials from the tourist department say while more people coming helps the local economy, they need to be more mindful of their surroundings. “Every year, traffic jams are increasing,” said Angmo. “The air gets very polluted and the entire town gets clogged. Most tourists who come by vehicles are Indians. They spend most of their time in Leh and seldom explore lesser known parts of the districts.”

According to data provided by her department, a little more than 1.26 lakh vehicles came to Leh a year.

To have the minimum impact on Ladakh’s environment and ecology, Ramachandran suggests that tourists give up creature comforts and choose to stay in homestays. “Every village has a distinct culture and tradition,” said Ramachandran. “The best way to learn about this is to stay with families that run homestays, instead of hotels that use too much electricity and water. There needs to be tighter regulation in the number of tourists coming, and stricter enforcement of handling of solid waste.”

A traditional Ladakhi house in Phyang village that was recently converted into a homestay. Photo credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha/Mongabay

The best way forward is to ensure the state promotes sustainable tourism and those coming to the district are more mindful of their water usage. “We need to be smarter and more efficient in our water usage,” said Kotru. “That’s the bottom-line,” he added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.