Protecting Climate and Environment: Ladakh Shows the Way


Protecting Climate and Environment: Ladakh Shows the Way

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, encompassing Bhutan, Nepal and long border stretches of India, China, Pakistan and other nations, is often referred to as the “Third Pole” because it holds the largest reserve of snow and ice outside the polar regions. This region is crucial to the livelihoods and economies of billions of people, as it is the source of ten of the largest rivers in Asia. However, write Andrew Sheng (Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong) and Sneha Poddar (Research Fellow at Georgetown Institute of Open and Advanced Studies) “climate change is threatening this lifeline, with glaciers retreating, and weather patterns becoming increasingly unpredictable. Scientists have declared that the Hindu Kush Bio-Sphere is on the brink of collapse.”

In this critical situation, "Ladakh’s proactive approach towards climate change becomes a source of inspiration. Ladakh is an Indian Union Territory with the highest high-altitude plateau that is mostly desert. Despite its stark landscape, Ladakh is a place where the principles of ‘dharma’ – a concept encompassing duty, righteousness, and moral order – take precedence over material gain. The quarter-million people of Ladakh have an intrinsic understanding that true wealth lies in the health of their environment and the continuation of their cultural heritage, not just in immediate financial benefits. Over the years, Ladakh’s response to climate change has been multi-faceted: from innovative water conservation measures to investment in renewable energy, protection of biodiversity, promotion of sustainable agriculture, focus on climate education, and integration of sustainability into governance.”

These initiatives, write the two authors  “have fostered a resilient community, capable of adapting traditional wisdom to contemporary challenges. Such strategies are underpinned by an ethos that values sacrifice and stewardship, viewing the preservation of the ecosystem as a sacred duty rather than an economic trade-off. Their commitment is exemplified in the pioneering work of the educational institution, SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh). This movement seeks to engage local communities in sustainable practices by empowering young Ladakhis, providing education that harmonizes with the region’s environmental and cultural ethos. This model of local involvement, alongside water conservation through ingenious methods like ‘ice stupas,’ solar passive mud buildings, widespread use of solar power for water heaters, responsible tourism, and traditional compost toilets, encapsulates a comprehensive approach to climate resilience. The whole Hindu Kush Himalayan region stands to gain from these community-based strategies, fostering a sense of ownership among residents to preserve their unique environment.”


‘Climate Fast’

A poignant embodiment of their commitment is the ongoing ‘Climate Fast’ undertaken by the people of Ladakh, fasting in chilling Himalayan temperatures to spotlight the urgency of climate action. Led by global innovator, educator and engineer Sonam Wangchuk, their fasting is a profound expression of dharma toward the Earth and future generations. It underscores a collective vision for the future – one where the integrity of our ecosystems is regarded as sacred and indispensable.

Ladakhis have “forgone certain development opportunities that conflict with their ecological and cultural values…….Ladakh shows an alternative path to healthy well-being and peace with our planet. Simply put, Ladakh’s ‘Climate Fast’ and the teachings it embodies are seminal to charting a course for the Hindu Kush Himalayas and beyond….”


The great Himalayan tragedy

The Ladakh example can be implemented across the globe, in particular, in the Himalayas.  Travelling  through the Himalayas,  there is a sense of impending doom. In the name of development, writes Shyam Saran (former Foreign Secretary) “there has been relentless spoliation of this sacred space, the scarring of its pristine landscapes, the dispossession of the rarest of the rare birds and animals which have dwelt in its embrace since ancient times and even of human communities which, in their ways of life, traditions and beliefs, have been its most faithful sentinels…..” The “entire mountain zone is sacred and a place of pilgrimage.”

Religious tourism:  The Everest has “become a high-altitude rubbish heap and its crest one more tick on a bucket list of adventures. Our ‘Char Dham’ (four sacred Hindu pilgrimages in the Himalayas)  are no longer hallowed places of pilgrimage but flourishing destinations for religious tourism…..The Char Dham ‘Yatra’ (tour), as it has been developed over the past couple of decades, is a pointer to what awaits us across the Himalayan range, for every patch of this space is associated with legends sacred to the many faiths of the sub-continent. Latest reports indicate that since the shrines opened around May 10-11, around 950,000 pilgrims had already descended on Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Yamunotri. We still have over five months to go before the shrines close in early November. The Uttarakhand Government has instituted a registration system to regulate entry to the shrines. But the daily limits permitted 20,000 for Kedarnath, 18,000 for Badrinath, 11,000 for Gangotri and 9,000 for Yamunotri. These are staggering numbers for such fragile and sensitive mountain locations. The speed and scale of expansion of religious tourism is evident from the footfall of 5,600,000 recorded last year, which was 1,000,000 more than in 2022, though it includes Hemkunt Sahib, which has smaller numbers overall.”

A government study, conducted a few years ago when the traffic was much less, found that 23,000 tonnes of solid waste was being generated annually along the track to one of the ‘dhams’, with no systematic disposal arrangement.

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