The sparsely inhabited Leh district in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has been one of the least polluted parts of the state. The famous water bodies of this high altitude cold desert, such as Indus River and Pangong Lake, have faced little threat of pollution until recently.

But an enormous increase in tourism to this corner of the Himalayas has started to change this. Last year the region received a record number of tourists, with 277,255 people visiting Ladakh. This is more than double the entire population of Leh district.

The area around Pangong Lake in Ladakh was not popular among Indian tourists until Bollywood blockbusters 3 Idiots and Jab Tak Hai Jan were filmed there in 2009 and 2012. Today, thousands of tourists visit the lake often via the ecologically fragile Khardung La pass, which is over 5,300 metres above sea level. The Pangong lake straddles India and China, over 750 square kilometres, and is one of the largest lakes in the region.

75-year-old Tsering Angdo has seen the number of tourists grow in recent years. In the past, only foreign tourists used to come to Leh. If there were any Indian tourists, he said, one could count them on fingers. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Pangong Lake, with its shimmering blue waters spread over 125 kilometres, has become immensely popular with Indian tourists since the Bollywood movies '3 Idiots' and 'Jab Tak Hai Jaan' were filmed in and around the lake in 2009 and 2012. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
According to Leh officials over 600 vehicles go to Pangong Lake every day. Many of these vehicles go right up to the lake shore although a sign cautions tourists that this is forbidden. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Plastic waste littering a ridge near Khardung La pass, where tourists pass through to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
A brown-headed gul flying over Pangong Lake. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Solid waste lying at a large dump site, Bomgard, near Leh town. Locals said that waste often gets carried away by the wind and some of it ends up in the Indus. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Waste from restaurants, hotels and households is collected every morning from the markets of Leh town to keep it clean. But this waste is dumped in the open without any treatment. Authorities in Leh said they are in the process of putting a mechanism in place to treat waste. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
A boy crossing a small channel containing sewage which drains into the Indus near Choglamsar in Leh. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Many cafes and restaurants have been built quite close to the lake. Environmental activists and nature lovers in Leh said that there has been no planning permission for these buildings. But officials of district administration in Leh said that they will now create a 100 metre buffer between the lake and the cafes. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Three young boys mimic the title characters from the movie '3 Idiots'. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
A poster of the movie '3 Idiots'. The posters have helped popularise Pangong Lake for Indian tourists who now throng the place in hordes. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz
Two tourists near a poster of the movie 'Jab Tak Hai Jan'. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz

This article first appeared on The Thirdpole.