Ladakh at the Crossroads

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Ladakh at the Crossroads

Climate change, a growing army presence, and mass tourism all threaten Ladakh’s traditional farming and culture.

Ladakh at the Crossroads

A woman sells fruits and vegetables while soldiers wait in line at a store in Leh, Ladakh.

Credit: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

Nestled between the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in northern India, Ladakh is a remote, picturesque region culturally distinct from the rest of India due to its own language and traditions.

For centuries, life in Ladakh revolved around agriculture, and this traditional way of living was passed on from generation to generation.

Until 1974, Ladakh was practically unknown to the outside world as it was only then that the region was opened to tourism. Shortly after, the once-isolated region saw rapid international tourism growth and the gradual modernization of its old culture.

“Along with tourists came the army because of the conflict with China,” Dr. Mohammed Deen, president of LEHO, an organization promoting sustainable development building on Ladakhi traditions, tells me. This put an additional strain on the region’s already scarce resources and contributed to the increase in environmental pollution.

“Climate change was not an issue in the past; we had these other challenges we were dealing with,” he adds. This is no longer the case, however. Now, the impacts of rising temperatures are clearly visible in Ladakh and with glaciers melting, the long-established irrigation system is endangered.

Can Ladakh overcome these socioenvironmental challenges and combine modernity with tradition?

This question needs to be addressed to determine whether Ladakh is capable of preserving its unique character while at the same time not missing out on the benefits of economic growth.

Harmful Tourist Boom

“Last year we got more than 400,000 tourists in one year, more than our entire population,” Deen tells me.

While the influx of tourists has undoubtedly been good for Ladakh’s economy, it has also put a strain on the region’s precious resources.

“So many tourists coming to Ladakh puts a lot of pressure on our water, land, and environment,” Deen explains. “Ladakh used to be self-sufficient in regards to food, clothing, and housing but today we import more than 80 percent of the products we use.”

In the past, Ladakhis would grow all of their own fruit and vegetables and use yak wool to make clothing. There was also enough wood to build houses. But when tourists started coming in large numbers, the demand for these things increased, and Ladakh had no choice but to start importing goods from other parts of India.

As well as using up food supplies, the rising numbers of tourists have been taking their toll on water resources. To cater to the needs of international visitors, guesthouses and hotels have had to install modern sanitation facilities such as flush toilets and cascading showers, even though normally Ladakhi families use dry toilets and have bucket baths. This, in turn, has been decreasing water availability in the region.

The impacts of tourism in Ladakh reach beyond deepening the scarcity of food resources and water, however.

In recent years, Ladakhis have been moving away from making income primarily from agriculture and instead have been opening guesthouses, restaurants, or tour companies. On the one hand, the diversification of sources of income can be interpreted as a good thing as new employment opportunities are being created. On the other hand, creating an economy centered around tourism rather than agriculture represents, at least partially, a loss of Ladakh’s old culture and traditions.

In any case, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that this model is not fully sustainable. “People of Ladakh realized that if tourists do not come, we will have nothing to eat and no work,” Deen explains.

More Army Presence, More Environmental Pressures

Sixty years ago, Ladakh was the site of the Sino-Indian war. The border conflict began in October 1962 when China attacked Indian positions in the region. The escalating tensions led to the Sino-Indian war, followed by periodic clashes and military standoffs over the ensuing decades. The most recent clashes in 2020 culminated in a standoff that continues today, with around 60,000 Chinese troops matched by the same number of Indian ones. As a result, Ladakh currently has one of the highest concentrations of armed forces in India.

Such a large military presence means military bases, hundreds of heavy military vehicles, and fighter jets, all of which have added to the pollution of the environment.

And, just like tourists, the thousands of soldiers have been consuming vast quantities of water and food. To meet this ever-growing demand, Ladakhi farmers started using chemical fertilizers, which have interfered with the traditional organic form of farming.

Finally, some Ladakhis, especially young men, began choosing military service over employment in agriculture, which highlights the gradual weakening of agriculture’s central role in Ladakh.

Climate Change Becomes a Reality

With Ladakh already struggling to adapt to the new reality of being a popular tourist destination and accommodating tens of thousands of military personnel, for years, climate change was not considered to be a main obstacle to Ladakh’s prosperity.

This is no longer the case.

“For centuries, Ladakh’s agriculture has been dependent on glaciers. During winter snow accumulates in the mountains and in the summer it melts, giving water to those living in villages. The water is then applied to farmland,” Deen says. “But, unfortunately, because of climate change it gets hotter and glaciers melt sooner so there are water shortages. Also, in winter we do not get as much snow as in the past so the whole system has changed.”

Now, rural communities face water deficits and need to think of alternative irrigation methods. Less water available reduces farmers’ crop area and consequently affects their ability to make an income from selling fruits and vegetables at local markets.

The disruption to Ladakh’s water supply at a time of rising demand due to tourism and military troops highlights the intertwined challenged faced by the region.

A Point of No Return?

The circumstances in which Ladakh now finds itself are outside of the local communities’ control. Tourists cannot be prevented from coming; the army will stay for as long as the dispute with China remains unresolved; and, unless the whole world takes action, temperatures will keep going up, making Ladakh’s glaciers melt.

Certain negative aspects of the changes Ladakh has been facing cannot be reversed but, if these new conditions are approached in a sustainable way that builds on Ladakhi culture, they can, on the whole, benefit rather than harm the region.

For instance, as Deen observes, “There are also positive impacts of climate change. People can now grow fruits and vegetables they could not grow before such as watermelons or big apples.” If the people of Ladakh acknowledge and embrace such opportunities, they can expand their agricultural activities, turning the changing climate conditions to their advantage.

Also, Ladakh has the potential to become an important ecotourism destination, which could help preserve the region’s ancient culture and traditions.

Promoting staying in guesthouses run by families over hotels could provide the chance to show foreigners how Ladakhis live, teaching them about the importance of saving water, and encouraging them to reduce their impact on the environment. And selling organic food products or handmade craft items in souvenir shops could provide livelihoods to locals.

Maintaining Ladakh’s agriculture-centered economy is essential if the region is to preserve its unique cultural heritage. If both the local and tourist populations recognize the urgency of that, Ladakh will not have to redesign its agrarian economy to keep up with the times. Instead, it will be able to find a balance between the old and the new, and will prosper without losing its identity.