By Anwar Ali Tsarpa (Ph.D. scholar), Voice of Ladakh 12-20
Traditional Ladakhi dry toilets
Recently we saw a village, Drass area of Kargil district in Ladakh, second coldest inhabited place on the earth, protesting over scarcity of water. Two days later, a video of another village from Kargil had gone viral on social media where people were seen lapsed into violence reportedly on a dispute over water. Insufficient supply of water has remained an essential issue especially in town area and also in villages.
Few miles away from the above incidents, few folk women in Minjee village, while shifting out waste from traditional dry toilet (or composting toilet), were suggesting replacing the traditional toilets with the modern flush toilets. A woman counted a number of households that have adopted the water-flush toilets. They were advocating for this change because of workload over the folk women.
The debate over Ladakhi dry toilets is interlinked with the severe water crisis that Ladakh is facing due to depletion of glaciers and ground water. Gender equality and environmental degradation are two other concerns that cannot be separated from this debate.
The Ladakhi dry toilets are a two storeyed engineering with one or two holes in between the two storey that is used as toilet. People throw a shovelful of soil down the hole after using it, to avoid smell. It provides a place also to dump house waste and ashes. Unlike the modern toilet, it does not require water a flush the waste. The waste accumulated in the basement needs to clear once in a year and transported to the agricultural field as manure for upcoming sowing season. In autumn soil would cut from the field to transport back to the toilet. This it the complete cycle.
In this cycle, it does not waste water to flush the waste and also produces manure. A poster outside a dry toilet in a monastery at Leh explains that "traditional Ladakhi toilets do not waste or pollute water like water toilets, and they also produce useful manure for fields and trees. Please throw a shovelful of earth down the hole after each use."
Many thinkers including the Swedish linguist, Helena Norberg Hodge, have described Ladakhi dry toilets as "environmentally friendly" in desert like Ladakh where the environment is fragile and water scarce.
Leh district of Ladakh is already facing a severe shortage of water since the influx of increased tremendously. The residents in Ladakh are adapted to live with less than 25 litres of water per day, but tourists consume 75 to 100 litres; that puts an immense pressure in the cold desert with limited water supply, explains environmentalist Chandra Bhushan. In 2018, the number of tourists who visited Ladakh was around three hundred thousands, which was more than double the population of Leh District. Due to the water crisis, Chandra Bhushan warned that Ladakh cannot sustain intense tourism pressure any longer.
At such a time ground water, which is source for many in Leh town area, is also decreasing with the huge usage. As the snow and rainfall is also on decrease, the ground water has not filled again. In such a time, the depleting glaciers is also a concern. A recent report shows that glaciers in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are melting at a "significant" rate. The study, that used satellite data, finds that over 1200 glaciers in the Himalayan region saw an annual reduction in thickness of 35 centimetres on average between 2000 and 2012.
In such a situation, Leh authorities, who have already adopted and tasted the sweetness of Tourism, instead of demanding a selective tourism approach, want the tourists to use dry toilets. It is hard to say, how much they would be successful in persuading the ever-changing tourists; otherwise, this model seems not feasible. To take U-turn from water-flush toilets to traditional dry toilets may become a challenge for the tourist-based economy of Leh.
Now, returning 200 km back to Kargil that has not adopted water-flush toilets yet. Imagine what would happen if replacing the dry toilets with modern flush-toilets? It would put a strain on water which is already in severe shortage. Kargil has to learn a lesson from the neighbouring district of Leh which has already failed due to shift from traditional to modern.
Second, the construction of pit under the ground for modern toilets would also pollute the ground water, which is also a main source of drinking water in many areas. The town area in Kargil has very little space for pit, thus would put the drainage waste towards river water. Considering all the loopholes, traditional dry toilets are a sustainable panacea for Ladakh's major concerns - environmental degradation and severe water crisis.
Now remains the gender issue. It is praised worthy that Kargil district is a casteless society where the burden to perform cleaning and drainage work is not on a particular group. However, in some villages - not all - it is the women folk who are solely expected to clean the toilet waste. This is a mindset where even the women folk don't want a "Khyoga Butsa" (male) to enter the ground floor of the toilet. As kargil has already adopted many changes, this mindset also has to diminish and males have to share the burden from women in cleaning the toilet waste. To provide mask and body cover while on work in cleaning waste is must to avoid dust and smell.
Leh district needs an immediate resolution of the issue as they are facing strain due to the huge influx of tourists. A study of Bhutan model for selective tourism would help them in putting a gag on the number of tourists visiting the district. The Ladakh Union Territory administration should give a thought about it.
For Kargil, which has not yet adopted modern toilets, this is an "early warning" that needs "early action" to sustain the traditional toilets and drawbacks of flush toilets. Ladakh must understand that a shovelful soil is much cheaper than a bucketful water.