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Rural waste management in Ladakh: Problems, reasons and solutions

Updated: Jul 3

Although villages in Ladakh generate a large amount of waste, we do not highlight the problem as we want to promote a picturesque image of rural Ladakh. This blog sheds light on the gaps, reasons, and solutions in rural waste management in Ladakh to raise awareness about the issue, which directly affects the environment and public well-being.


Background 

Ladakh is home to numerous villages, known for their pristine environment and self-sustaining lifestyle. The villages are connected to town centres by a growing network of roads, yet many villages are remote and difficult to access. Despite modernisation, a large population of Ladakhis still reside in villages, engaging in farming and related activities. Compared to urban areas, the villages experience less pollution, the air is clean and the stream water is mostly drinkable. But nowadays, villages also produce large amounts of waste, including household, commercial, lodging, tourist, migrant worker, and military waste. While some villages have centres for waste collection, many others rely on practices such as home or communal burning and disposal in private or communal pits. There are also reports of waste being dumped in waterways. 

Solid Resource Management Centre (SRMC), Saspol
Inert waste is dealt with by dumping in large pits and later covering up at the SRMC in Nimoo

Although receiving a high number of tourists, Korzok does not have a waste management centre. Residents burn the waste on the outskirts of the village, which pollutes the landscape.


How the rural waste management system works

Waste management in rural Ladakh is tough because the villages are scattered, the terrain is difficult, and climate is harsh. Waste management began in rural Ladakh in 2018 when the Rural Development Department (RDD) initiated Project Tsang Da (meaning 'cleanliness' in Ladakhi) and constructed the first Solid Resource Management Centers (SRMCs) in Choglamsar for waste collection and segregation. Over the past six years, RDD has expanded its coverage to include about two dozen villages across Ladakh. Twelve SRMCs are located in Leh District in the villages: Choglamsar, Spituk, Chuchot Yokma, Chuchot Gongma, Thiksay, Kharu, Pangong, Disket, Panamik, Nimoo, Saspol, Khaltse, all of which are functioning. Fifteen SRMCs are located in Kargil District, out of which seven located in Kargil, Sankoo, Baroo, Paskum, Drass, Shargol and Padum are currently operating.


The waste management system function in this way: waste is collected from the nearby villages where the SRMC is located and transported to the centre; workers at the centre segregate the waste and try to recover the usable materials such as paperboards, plastic bottles, and metals; the leftover waste, called inert waste, is discarded in unregulated ways by open burning or burying in pits. 


Usable materials, like grass, discarded with the inert waste at the SRMC in Saspol.


What are the problem areas and why

The rural waste management system suffers from several shortcomings stemming from a complex interplay of factors such as approach to waste management, knowledge and training, planning and implementation, and role and responsibilities of the public.


1. Waste reduction is not given importance 

The rural waste management system in Ladakh focuses mainly on  waste collection from households and shops to keep the streets clean. There is less emphasis on recovering and reusing materials, and reducing waste is not considered important at all although about half of the waste collected turns out to be of no value and has to be disposed of in unregulated ways. In the awareness sessions conducted by the authorities, people are taught to segregate their waste, but they also need to learn how to reduce their waste generation in the first place by buying only what they need, sharing with others, using reusable items, and avoiding disposable products. The waste management approach should prioritise prevention over dealing with products at the end of their life cycle. In other words, it's important to stop waste from being created, rather than just dealing with it after it's made. This would reduce the burden of managing waste and protect the environment.

rural waste management in Ladakh Himalayas
In the absence of a Solid Resource Management Centre (SRMC), the residents of Hemischukpachan dump their trash in communal pits on the outskirts of the village and later cover it up.

2. Waste managers lack knowledge on waste management

The real problem in the waste management system seems to be that the officials and staff in charge of waste management do not fully understand the environmentally sustainable practices of managing waste. Their primary concern appears to be ensuring timely waste collection, without due consideration for its environmental impact and efficient management. The Block Development Officers (BDOs), who are in charge of the Solid Resource Management Centers (SRMCs), have not been given the necessary education and training in running the SRMCs and effectively managing waste. In some cases, they might not even know much about waste at all. The lack of awareness regarding the environmental impact of waste is evident in the way inert waste is handled at the SRMCs, where it is either dumped in open areas, buried in pits, or burned in the open. Each of these methods is harmful to the environment. Furthermore, a lot from the so called inert waste could have been recovered but since the focus is on cleanliness and not on resource recovery, a lot of the usable materials are left to pollute the environment.

The SRMC in Hunder is located across the sand dunes. Waste dumped outside the centre gets blown away, polluting the landscape.


3. Moving forward but without a plan

In addition to the fact that the officials and staff responsible for waste management lack the necessary knowledge and understanding, there is a noticeable absence of a comprehensive plan and objectives for the whole waste management system.  The approach taken by the RDD appears to be a quick fix considering the enormous waste generation in rural Ladakh. The SRMCs do not have a dedicated staff to supervise the waste management. A thorough assessment of waste generation trends is missing, which is crucial for devising effective strategies to minimise waste and enhance current practices for effective waste management. Public has not received comprehensive education on waste management and their role in it. Furthermore, public exclusion from discussions and lack of transparency in decision-making processes reflect wider governance issues in waste management and other public services. 

View of the SRMC in Saspol with large pits dug next to it for disposing of inert waste.


4. Public not doing its part well 

While it is not clear how much effort was made by the RDD to raise public awareness about segregating waste at source, it is evident that many people continue to dispose of mixed waste, making it really hard for the workers to recover the usable materials. Despite repeated appeals by the authorities to segregate waste, glass, food and sanitary items are commonly found in the dry waste. Also, some people do not get their garbage ready on time, which causes delays when the collection trucks come around. There have even been cases of people getting upset with the waste collection workers and complaining to the local authorities about the trucks not showing up on time. Some households and businesses do not pay the waste collection fees on time, requiring the authorities to make additional efforts for follow-up.

With over 300 guest houses generating bulk waste in Hundar, Nubra valley, waste workers have a hard time collecting and sorting the waste.


Suggestions: What can be done for improvement

  1. Conduct awareness programs to educate the public on how to reduce waste and segregate waste correctly.

  2. Provide training to those responsible for waste management to help them implement the best practices for environmentally sustainable waste management.

  3. Develop a comprehensive plan of action with clear goals for the waste management system based on field research and expert advice.

  4. Impose penalties for defaulters. In other words, make sure there are consequences for people who don't follow the rules for protecting the environment. 

  5. Ensure active participation of the public in waste management and environmental protection activities. 

  6. Support local NGOs and their initiatives in waste management to assist in overall waste management.


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