In the past, we used to drink directly from streams. It’s unthinkable now: Leh residents

By Stanzin Lhadol Leh, Aug 03, 2019
Leh :

Even as the water crisis in Leh looms large, hopes of the residents have risen with the establishment of the Municipal Committee (MC). Set up in 2018, for the first time, the urban local body is an important grassroots organisation, representative of India’s democratic structure. It has commenced with 13 elected members representing different wards of the town. 

In our mission to ascertain the most pressing issues concerning Leh town, a meeting with the MC Chairman, Dr. Namgyal, and his fellow members, was important. Clearly, it was too early for the committee to fathom everything, but on meeting them we learnt that issues related to water topped their list of concerns. 

This was followed by a visit to a few main areas of Leh town as we felt that would educate us on the subject. These included field visits to Diskittsal (Housing Colony), Murtse Colony, Skalzangling and Gangles, exposing us to rather unimaginable and harsh realities that the residents of these areas had to face.    

Slowly, we began assessing the water crisis in Leh with an understanding of its multifaceted nature. The crisis is on account of several reasons, including drying up of sources, seasonal fluctuations in demand and supply, overexploitation, overuse, contamination and policy lapses, amongst others. The solutions, therefore, require a multipronged approach.

Towards an attempt to resolve the crisis, exhaustive and reliable data is needed, which is not there. For instance, there is no clear data that quantifies the demand-supply gaps and the seasonal or decadal change in demands. Until now the groundwater aquifer remains a mystery. There is an inkling of groundwater table receding from indirect evidence when bore-wells and water bodies dry up. The glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, yet one cannot ascertain the precise impact this will have on the water availability for Leh town. 

Scarcity of water, some say, is a myth! There is enough water provided the water is managed well. Water now seems scarce due to its overuse and misuse. Over the years, the demand for water has risen due to tourism and growing commercialisation in Leh town. There are estimates of the supply graph ascending very sharply in the coming years. 

In most of these areas we visited, there was no need to ask people about the shortage of water – it was evident from the parched and defunct community taps. In all three wards -Murtse, Skalzangling and Housing Colony, fetching water for drinking and cleaning purposes is a daily struggle. The residents state, “The problem gets worse during the winter season.” At the logistics end, the climate of Ladakh poses several challenges. Breaking and freezing of pipes are the most common concern.  At Murtse, we met Rinchen, Municipal Committee member of the ward. She graciously let us into her home and introduced us to a solution that she has resorted to keep her water pipelines free from freezing. She borrowed the traditional concept of a Yokkhang, an underground house, and applied it to her bathroom and water pipelines. “This method of laying pipes way beneath the soil prevents freezing of pipes”, admits Rinchen cheerfully.  

The Goba of Housing Colony, Stanzin Otsal, recounts, “The community tap water works more effectively than individual tap water systems during winter.” He asserts that the community taps, being common property, are looked after collectively by all the members. They regularly light fires around the mouth of the taps to prevent freezing of pipes, but with individual pipelines, it becomes difficult when residents are not always around. Such findings reveal the persistent climatic challenge of the region and calls for innovative measures such as insulation of the pipelines.

The Public Health and Engineering (PHE) department is responsible for ensuring the supply of water in the Leh town area. P Angchuk, a senior engineer of the PHE department, shared some thoughts on the institutional and logistical challenges that the department is faced with. 

“The biggest issue that we are dealing with is that of extreme climatic conditions. The sub-zero temperatures of the region result in freezing, breakage and blockage of pipes and taps. The existing pipes are galvanized iron pipes, which cannot be prevented from freezing. The new water supply pipelines are insulated, ductile iron pipes, which have been introduced keeping in mind the low temperature. These have resolved the issue of freezing and blockage of pipelines during the severe cold months”, says Angchuk.

He adds that “considering the unique climate and topography of the region, successful systems adopted by the rest of the country cannot be replicated in Ladakh. The experts in Delhi or Bangalore are unable to provide solutions to our unique challenges.”  

The maintenance of a water supply system calls for huge investment in a region like Ladakh. “The corpus of funds dedicated to the maintenance of our water supply system is minimal and inadequate. Whereas maintenance is necessary and crucial for the unhindered provision of service to the public”, laments Angchuk. 

In Skalzangling, most water pipelines are non-operational, some on account of freezing during the cold winter months and others are new pipelines to which the PHE department promises to supply water soon. The residents are eagerly waiting to see these taps run. To meet their daily needs, they either fetch water from far-off taps, sometimes requiring them to travel several kms. They also rely on tankers to supply water, which are mostly infrequent, erratic and unreliable. Tashi, a senior engineer at PHE, shares, “The tankers that the department owns are overworked. They cater to both the government and the public. There have been instances when people in power make excessive demands for water brought in by the tankers at the cost of unmet demands for water by the general public”

During the months of winter, demand for water plummets. Yet, it is despairing to note the non-availability of water in the regular taps. Streams and rivulets have surplus flow of water in winters while in summers they dry up. Tapping the water from these sources will allow its reuse. These seasonal paradoxes can be fixed with the application of a blend of traditions and modern techniques.

Inequitable distribution, lack of regulation and absentee caretakers too bother the common people. While some pipes have no supply, others are overflowing without proper regulators leading to a lot of wastage. The unregulated water then overflows into the streets and on roads leading to problems for the residents. 

Another issue that calls for attention is the quality of the water.  Surprisingly, there were no reservations about the quality of water among the locals. 

Dr. JigmetYangchan, scientist SKUAST, says, “Visibly clear and odourless water is presumed safe and clean for drinking.” This fallacy was laid to rest after study reports shared by LEDeG in a meeting of NGO Forum revealing findings of chemical and organic impurities in the water. 

Dr. Yangchan has conducted research to determine the reasons for the degrading quality of water, especially in Leh town. Her drive for the cause of clean water over several years has resulted in alarming findings. She associates water pollution with agricultural run-offs and discharge of grey and black water in the water bodies. On one of her solo missions, she decided to assess the quality of water in the Gangles region where she assumed the water to be of supreme quality and pure given its location near the headstream. She was shocked to see the test results. The water was impure and unfit for consumption. 

Later, she identified the point source of pollution – it was where a few households were discharging their grey and black water in the streams and main water bodies.

Lobzang Tsering, Municipal Committee member from Gompa, says, “The Border Roads Organization has allowed their labours to settle near the water bodies in makeshift arrangements. The people of Gompa are raising complaints of their water sources getting polluted due to human activities close to the water sources. They have made pleas to the administration to look into this matter and relocate the labours away from the water bodies.” 
This carelessness towards the sources of water is true for all the water bodies in Leh town, which receives unregulated sewerage and all forms of waste at various points. 

People heave a sigh when issues about purity and availability of water are discussed. Especially the elderly folks reminisce of a time when water was clean and abundant. To validate their point, they say, “In the past, we drank water directly from the streams.” This is unthinkable now and we must realise why!