Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Leh: "We need to think seriously about the consequences of using flush water toilets," said Phunchok Dolma from Phay village in Ladakh. "The traditional dry compost toilet is a better option as it uses no water, and the waste generated can be used as manure in agriculture."
Of late, this debate on tradition versus modernity in toilet technology has become intense in Ladakh, as it is directly related to both availability of clean drinking water amid rising demand and pollution of scarce ground water resources.
A region closed to outsiders till 1974, the large influx of tourists, which exceeded three lakh in 2018, has, no doubt, given a big boost to the local economy. Thousands of youths are engaged in tourism-related activities and work as tour guides, helpers, travel agents and taxi drivers.
The other side of the coin includes the ecological damage done to this once isolated and pristine region by the haphazard race to build hotels, cafes and other tourist facilities, with many families, especially in Leh, converting their agricultural fields into hotels and guest houses.
The adverse impact of blindly catering to this increasing influx of tourists without corresponding modern sanitation, waste and water management practices is only now getting attention. The exposure to the outside world has brought some changes to traditional local practices, including in sanitation.
For long, Ladakhis used dry compost toilets that use no water and can function in the region's freezing winter temperatures. These are now being increasingly replaced by the western flush toilet, which pollutes ground water resources.
"Locals have problems with using flush water toilets since they are used to the traditional dry compost toilets," said Urgain Dolker, a local Ladakhi. "Besides, Ladakh lacks a proper system of sewage management and treatment."
Many hoteliers said that while foreigners prefer using dry compost toilets and appreciate the local ways of preserving the environment, domestic tourists prefer flush toilets. Officials cite maintenance as a major challenge when it comes to dry compost toilets. Last year, a municipal committee experimented using a bio-digestor chemical for the compost manure, but the experiment failed due to the region's extreme temperatures.
Leh's district panchayat officer Zakir Hussain said dry compost toilets were included in the Swachh Bharat programme as it was not possible to construct flush toilets in far-flung areas due to harsh climatic conditions.
"The problem in urban areas is having no place to dump the compost manure," he said. "Changing weather patterns also makes flush toilets more suitable for urban areas."
Leh's rural department has constructed 4,390 toilets — both flush and compost — since October 2014 under the Swachh Bharat Mission, Hussain said.
Becky Norman, who has done research on dry compost toilets through the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), said there is a big problem of toilets "in a fast-growing town like Leh".
"And since there is little understanding of the difference between soak pits and septic tanks, most hotels in Leh and guest houses have soak pits, through which the waste seeps into ground water areas. The Leh Municipal Committee recently made it mandatory for every hotel and guest house to have a septic tank and to clean it twice a year. The municipal department currently has two suction tankers and is planning to buy two more," she added.
Norman believes there is a need to create awareness about the pros of local compost toilet.
"For many tourists, a seat on dry compost is a fine solution, especially if they understand how water toilets pollute and dry composting toilets actually support the local organic ecosystem," she said.
But many locations in Leh town are too crowded to make composting toilets easy.
"In Ladakh's villages, it would be very easy to design nice composting toilets for village guest houses and hotels," Norman said. "They can have a seat and a nice clean room for the user. In many locations, it is even possible to design attached bathrooms with composting toilets."
The amount of faecal sludge generated in Leh has also increased over the years. Wastewater generated from hotels, individual households and army camps have all contributed to this.
Faecal sludge is now being treated at a Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) at Bombgarh. Set up in August 2017, it has treated 27,12500 litres of waste water so far. The treated wastewater is used in agriculture.
The Leh FSTP is India’s first public-private partnership in faecal sludge management. Another FSTP in Agling is likely to be operational soon.
Rural Leh was declared open defecation free (ODF) in August 2017; Leh Urban Local Body and the state of Jammu and Kashmir were declared ODF in September 2016.
Census records show that Leh's population rose from 27,423 in 1981 to 45,671 in 2011. In Leh, many rented accommodations do not provide toilet facilities to tenants, which was the reason for open defecation in Leh town. However, in rural areas, every household has its own compost toilet. In fact, the first thing Ladakhis decide before constructing a house is where to locate the toilet.
Leh's BJP president Dorje Angchuk admits that sanitation can be an important issue in the 2019 election if social activists play an active role in highlighting these concerns.
"Political parties should understand what the public demands and act on them," Angchuk said. "The success of the Swachh Bharat Mission in the region will definitely work in favour of the BJP."
Unsurprisingly, Tsering Namgyal, Congress district committee president in Leh, has a different opinion.
"Sanitation and the waste disposal system is not a major concern for political parties for the 2019 election in Ladakh," he said. "It is a work in progress."
Dr Ishey Namgyal, president of Leh's municipal committee, said Ladakhi culture is such that it is already ODF.
"We are planning to run a pilot project where toilets similar to the ones in Druk Padma Karpo school (which runs on solar energy) will be built in some public places in Leh," he said.
A small school in Shey, the waste collected here is covered in sand and turned into manure in a pit below, which is ultimately bought by farmers.
While sanitation and pollution of ground water resources are getting attention in Ladakh, the availability of potable water in Leh and other areas of Ladakh is another serious problem that needs immediate attention.
According to NGO Ladakh Ecological Development Group's (LEDeG) assessment of water supply and demand in Leh town, carried out using government and other available research data, total public water supply from various sources is 5.4 millions of litres per day (MLD) — 2.01 MLD comes from the Indus river, 0.9 MLD from springs and 2.4 MLD from borewells. Apart from this over 4,000 private borewells in the district extract 2.9 MLD of water, putting immense pressure on the groundwater levels.
The presence of migrant labourers, especially in summer, adds to the challenge. LEDeG data classifies water usage in Leh city as 0.9 MLD by tourists, 3.9 MLD by residents and 1.5 MLD by workers, adding up to 6.3 MLD. In winters, the demand is as low as 2.8 MLD. While the demand for potable water already exceeds supply, the LEDeG report adds that the supply needs to increase to 12 MLD in 2022 and 15 MLD in 2028 to meet the demand after taking leakages into account.
In the absence of strict government regulation and monitoring of groundwater extraction, many springs have also dried up.
"The water table in Leh town is between 100 and 150 feet and around 300 feet in other areas," said Thinless Dorjay, operation assistant of LEDeG's Liveable Leh Project. "The underground water table in Leh is not stable and confined to the lowlands."
Besides depletion of groundwater resources, the other serious problem is pollution of this water.
"We tested the groundwater with the help of the Technical University of Munich," said Fariha Yousuf, trainings assistant at LEDeG. "We tested for the presence of pollutants such as nitrate, chloride and (bacteria) E coli. Out of the 110 samples, we found 100 samples positive for chloride, a confirmation that it is due to wastewater contamination. E coli was found in 14 of the 16 samples tested. Other substances like caffeine and pharmaceuticals were found in other samples."
Mismanagement rather than declining water resources is the main reason for the water crisis in Leh town, Yousuf said.
"Nearly 35 percent of the water is wasted," she added. "There is no system to check where the water goes.Private agencies manage borewells. No one knows how much water we extract and how much is consumed. There is no metering system."
Then there is the growing problem of waste disposal. Leh town generates 35 to 40 tonnes of garbage in the summer, primarily because of tourism, and 5 to 6 tonnes in winter. Till recently, Ladakh did not even have a concept of waste management. The increasing challenges forced the administration to think seriously about garbage disposal and waste management, after which they came up with technologies for primary waste segregation.
Now that more and more tourists visit Ladakh to take in its scenic beauty and spiritual essence, problems and challenges in water management, sanitation, sewage treatment and waste disposal will only increase. The need is not only for strict regulation but also to make all stakeholders aware of the issues and prepare sustainable and responsible tourism and local management policies.
The author is a Leh-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters