I went to Ladakh, yes I did the clichéd thing every Delhi guy dreams of doing one day but don’t worry this will not be another travel blog on how amazing it was and how life changing it was (It was, for the ones who want to know). Instead, I want to point out an issue which is most important for the survival of Ladakh and surrounding regions. The rivers in Ladakh region are slowly dying, along with most of the freshwater sources on Earth. I do not think I need to tell you how or in what ways exactly we can affect rivers adversely, but if you are wondering, here you go.
In my own experience, throughout the journey, I crossed multiple bridges over rivers, or at least where rivers used to be. Most people would cross it without giving it much of a thought but when I see a rock on the road, sometimes I think about the long journey it might have made over hundreds of years. Maybe that small rock was a part of a bigger rock somewhere in the mountains. Maybe it was cut by humans, maybe just through rain, or natural causes and got pushed on to a water stream, onto a riverside, onto someone picking it up and throwing it on the road and so on.
So when I looked under the bridges, there lay barren lands with minuscule streams of water running through, in kilometers long dried up riverbeds, my imagination ran through the several thousands of years of the river’s existence and I could imagine the kilometers wide river flowing tremendously with all its might under the bridge and slowly with human intervention, the width kept growing shorter and shorter and now only that little metre wide stream is left.
Tourist activity in the area has also spiked over the last 10 years, social media playing a very important role. Ladakh was always a tourist place but in the last decade or so, due to popularity among youth, the number of bikers, campers, travelers in the area has increased tenfold. Where only a few cars waited at the entrance of the 2.8 km long Banihal tunnel while the animal stock crossed it 10 years ago, now there’s queues longer than the tunnel itself. Moreover, tourists have increased the water requirements in Leh and nearby cities and villages. While the old towns of the region could do with just a few buckets of water a day, the growing influx of travellers has spurred the creation of modern hotels which draw large amounts of water to feed showers and baths .
Just a quick google search gave me astounding findings from studies conducted a decade ago. Paleo-climatologist Bahadur Kotlia, showed that one glacier in the Karakoram Range had retreated between 15 and 20 metres per year between 2001 and 2003 . He further went on to refer to this rate as “chaos; which should not be happening”. In the last 50 years, the glaciers have reduced 21% from 2,077 square kilometres in 1962 to 1,682 square kilometres in 2007. These stats from years ago are so alarming, I am truly scared of looking at what these stats would be for the current situation.
The main river in Ladakh, Indus, has provided for both India and our friendly neighbours, Pakistan, for hundreds of years. Environmental scientist Erin Blankenship reported that Pakistan which is dependent on the Indus for an estimated 90% of its irrigation needs, saw per capita water availability decline from 5,600 cubic metres in 1947 to just 1,200 cubic metres in 2005. Back home in 1950, per capita availability stood at over 5,000 cubic metres while in 2005, it was 1,800 cubic metres . This rate of decrease is “capable of unleashing conflicts” according to UNESCO Director at the time, General Klaus Toepfer in 1999. I have not yet researched what the conflicts at the border are about these days, but they very well might be over thirst for water.
It is not just Ladakh’s rivers which are constantly degrading. A report by multiple scientists on studies conducted simultaneously on rivers around the world found that 30 of the 47 largest rivers showed at least moderate threats to water security, due to a range of human impacts such as pollution and irrigation . The rivers furthest away from populated areas, such as the remote parts of the tropical rainforest, the Amazon, Siberia and, elsewhere in the Polar Regions are the least affected, showing the impact of human interference with nature’s resources. Globally, between 10,000 and 20,000 aquatic wildlife species are at risk or near extinction because of human degradation of global rivers according to the same report .
However, all is not lost, at least for Ladakh. Two very effective methods for building artificial glaciers in the Ladakh region were developed by Sonam Wangchuk  and Chewang Norphel , 4 and 10 years ago, respectively. Sonam’s method uses a conical arrangement of pipes to create snow or ice stupas to store water through the coldest seasons which is then used by locals in the driest seasons. Chewang’s method uses a network of pipes transferring river water into artificial lakes, something similar to step farming, which converts into ice and hence water in the dry season.
This shows if we have the power to degrade nature’s reserves, we also have the ability to at least use it efficiently, if not upgrade it.