In Himalayan travel hub, women battle against tourism pollution

More than 277,000 tourists visited the town of Leh, high in the Himalayas in India's far north last year.

Tsering Chondol, 60, remembers a time when the water that flowed through the town of Leh, high in the Himalayas in India’s far north, was pristine.

“We used to drink directly from the streams — until our land became a tourist hub,” said Chondol, wearing a traditional black gown and a red scarf.

Leh is the largest town in the remote region of Ladakh, where locals have long wrested a living from herding goats and tending barley and wheat fields, ringed by 6,000-meter peaks.

But as members of India’s burgeoning middle-class have ventured in increasing numbers to holiday in Ladakh’s tranquil, lunar-like terrain, its resources have been put under strain, threatening its fragile ecosystem.

More than 277,000 tourists visited Leh last year alone, the local tourism body said — twice the number of residents in the region. The result: vehicles clogging narrow roads, and much more pollution, particularly sewage and plastic bags.

“With the arrival of lots of tourists, people gradually forgot about the traditional ways of keeping the surroundings clean,” Chondol said, adding that the convenience and popularity of plastic bags had made matters worse.

Rigzin Spalgon, who heads Leh’s municipal committee, said that a decade ago the city produced almost no waste.

“All of a sudden we started generating more than 20 tons of waste and a lot of sewage per day,” Spalgon said.

The steady environmental deterioration over the years spurred more than 4,000 volunteers in the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, which Chondol heads, to take measures to tackle plastic waste.

“This made us to think that we have to do something about it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The world uses up to 5 trillion plastic bags annually, the UN Environment Programme says, with some 15 million tons of plastics ending up in the oceans each year.

India generates 15,000 tons of plastic waste daily. Nearly half ends up in landfills, on the streets, and in drains and sewage systems, according to India’s Central Pollution Control Board.

Plastic pollution has caught the attention of India’s government, which in June pledged to eliminate all single-use plastics in the country by 2022.

The Jammu and Kashmir region, where Ladakh is located, has moved faster: in January this year it banned plastic bags outright. Using a plastic bag carries a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$73) or up to one month in jail, or both.

“We were able to make Ladakh free of plastic carry-bags all because of the efforts of Women’s Alliance of Ladakh. They initiated the whole process and later ensured that the ban on plastic bags works,” said Spalgon.

Chondol said the women’s group is also now campaigning to end the use of chemical fertilizers.

Its actions have had other consequences too, she said.

“Before, no one would think of allowing women to go out of the houses by themselves. Forget about allowing them taking a lead role in bringing change in the society,” she said.

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