Don’t flush it in Leh

Posted on | augustus 8, 2011 | No Comments

Community toilets in Leh

Do you guys remember the school in Leh where Fungchook Wangdoo went back to – in the popular movie ’3 Idiots’ by Amir Khan? I am talking about the Druk Padma Karpo School where the movie was partly shot and the school that was devastated in the 2010 cloud burst. I guess you remember, but in case you don’t here is a recap.

While the bizarre downpour and resulting flash flood in Leh and parts of Pakistan in August 2010 still remains a possible warning of an imminent Climate Change, the tragedy of Leh was compounded due to its unpreparedness of such natural calamity. Sitting at an altitude of 3524 meters, this erstwhile capital of Ladakh and now one of the most important towns of the district of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir, Leh-ites are used to look down upon (no pun intended) to the rest of India. You do not expect so high a place to be inundated. If that’s not good enough worry; we Indians, poor Indians are concerned with pressing issues of more immediate nature. I, by no means, am dispensing the Climate Change out of hand, but there is a story unfolding in Leh that might appeal to our immediate concerns. And this story begins in the toilets.

Leh is a cold desert in climate variability scale, which essentially means that it has long harsh winter months from October to March when temperature falls as low as -28 degree Celsius and it’s annual average rainfall is below 130 mm (actually somewhere around 100 mm). Interestingly Leh receives on average 300 days of clear sunny days in a year and in summer it can have a day as hot as 33 degrees Celsius. The relief does not support much vegetative cover and natural water is scarce, so he Leh district is practically dependent on the water from the melting glaciers that are abundant in the area. By all standards it’s a pretty harsh environment for living. But in seeming defiance of the climatic extremes, the Leh district has a population of over 117,000 people (excluding Kargil and Zanskar) and historically it remained populated as an ancient trade post between Tibet and Kashmir and in recent between India and China.

In response to local weather and water availability, Leh-ites traditionally developed waterless sanitation in community toilets. The practice is still present in rural Leh and modern sanitation has almost replaced it.

Modern Leh town is busy and bustling with tourists and as tourists we are hardly ready to sit in a toilet that has no water or micro-flush or it even sounds bizarre if it follows that we need to urinate separately. The communal toilets are less than a tourist attraction and they stink almost quarter of a kilometer away. So water based sanitation are a much needed attraction in hotels of Leh.

This is a luxury Leh can hardly afford. Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) which also governs the administration in Leh, spoke of diverting a grant of RS. 5 Crores year marked for building a water based sanitation system in Leh towards a environment friendly dry Eco-toilets based on micro-organisms as back as 2003. Waterless or dry toilets may sound quite an innovation to us and even foreign entrepreneurs make the most of it but in Leh this is a traditional practice challenged by modern ways of life.

It is an unusual request. But Kunzes Dolma, when asked, is willing to show off her Ladakhi loo. Dolma and fellow members of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh have been actively campaigning to retain the region’s traditional dry toilet as part of a wider effort to use ancient adaptations – and a few newer ones – to help this desert region cope with climate change. See report.

For the missing picture of the loo see below.

The only constraint between realization of this time tasted wisdom and abject submission to water intensive westernized toilets in Leh is awareness and popular acceptance. As I said in my first post here, not all life blood of tourism is still virus free.

Contrary to common belief, if constructed the right way the dry toilets are absolutely safe, hygienic, odor free and most suited for water strapped Leh. I attest this as an Engineer having some modest idea about sanitation, public health and solid waste management.

The basic principle is to compost human excreta without flushing and releasing the odor and the gaseous elements of compost through a vertical stack and then removing the accumulated solids (which has turned into decent quality manure by 24 weeks with designed micro-organisms strategically in the collection chamber at the building foundation level) just like any other solid waste. The saving is significant to critical in water strapped areas like Leh as even at the minimum each flush in toilets use 8 to 10 liters of water, which for a 5 member family can mean an annual saving of up to 36,500 liters. The waste has economic value as manure and if the system is designed to separate urine, a more frequent collection (about once a day) can find an excellent use as good quality nutrient for plants.

Indigenous entrepreneurs are not rare so we do not need to import technologies. Eco-solution’s work for Ladakh Environmental Development Group in Leh is very promising.

The Hemisphere, a joint project of Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American studies, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and South Asia Institute in the University of Texas, Austin gives an estimate of comparison between Flush, Existing Pit and Dry Composting Toilets in Leh.

At roughly Rs 50 to a dollar, a dry composting toilet costs lower than a high end LCD TV.

 Once again, the only difficulty is of acceptance by tourists or outsiders of Leh. They are critical for Leh’s local economy and a rejection by them may see this very plausible, very necessary even only rational solution for the Leh-ites falling short of implementation.

What will you do if they say: Don’t flush it in Leh?

This coverage is first published at Climate Himalaya

AUTHOR: Pabitra Mukhopadhyay
E-MAIL: mukhopadhyay.pabitra [at]


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