Is it all downhill from here for Leh?

Rapid urban growth, scarce water resources and a high risk of natural disasters pose serious challenges for Leh's urban planning and governance.
The main bazaar of Leh (Image: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0) The main bazaar of Leh (Image: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Across South Asia, small and medium-sized towns are rapidly expanding. Urbanisation has made inroads into the entire Himalayan region. Mountain urbanisation poses a need for assessments of emerging risks and vulnerabilities in environmentally sensitive regions. These areas are marked by population growth and migration from rural settlements as well as limited availability of suitable space for construction, often leading to building activities in landslide or flood-prone areas. 

A paper ‘Urbanisation and socio-ecological challenges in high mountain towns: Insights from Leh (Ladakh), India’ by Juliane Dame et al provides a detailed assessment of the rapid and largely uncontrolled urbanisation of Leh. The study highlights spatial inequalities owing to the city’s centralised water management, and presents recommendations for better town planning.

Leh town is located in the Trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh at an altitude of 3500 m above sea level, along a northern tributary of the Indus river. Until recently, agriculture had been the economic mainstay of the region. Due to excessive aridity, crop cultivation entirely depends on glacio-nival meltwater for irrigation.

Over the last few decades, the urban agglomeration has become attractive for migrants from both, within and outside Ladakh, as well as for tourists. Rapid urban growth, scarce water resources and a high risk of natural disasters and hazards due to potential flooding events pose serious challenges for urban planning and governance. Along with increasing tourism, new urban socio-cultural lifestyles, and consumption patterns are also playing a role in the increasing vulnerability of this region.

Studying the urbanisation process

The study is based on an integrated methodological approach using very high resolution multi-temporal satellite imagery, field mapping and social research data to track socioeconomic and political developments. It addresses three questions:

  1. What are the spatio-temporal characteristics of the urbanisation process?
  2. What determines the pace and form of urbanisation?
  3. What are the challenges for sustainable urban governance?

After tracing the historical development of urban expansion based on a literature review, the authors present empirical findings in the form of interrelated patterns and dynamics, as well as drivers and challenges of urban development.

From a trading hub to a vibrant Himalayan town

Urban development in this region has four dominant drivers:

  1. Leh’s role as an administrative and infrastructural centre;
  2. The development of the tourism sector;
  3. The diffusion of urban sociocultural lifestyles; and
  4. The region’s geopolitical importance.

A rapid spatial expansion of housing settlements on both, former agricultural and barren land along with a densification of built-up areas can be observed in Leh. The pace of construction has more than doubled in Leh – 9400 new buildings were constructed in 14 years between 2003 and 2017. Approximately the same number of buildings were constructed in the 34 years before this period, i.e. from 1969 to 2003.

Further, building area more than quintupled from 36 ha to 196 ha between 1969 and 2017. Consequentially, agricultural land loss through construction activities increased from 1% in 1969 to 8% in 2017.

Urban governance and challenges

Leh’s urban development is shaped by four relevant actors:

  1. The Leh Municipal Corporation, taking the lead in urban planning, sanitation and garbage disposal, traffic management and granting of building permits;
  2. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), implementing political decisions made by the Jammu and Kashmir state government or the Indian central government on a regional scale;
  3. The Indian army, influencing policy decisions and providing welfare and rescue programmes; and
  4. NGOs, preserving the old town and its cultural heritage.

The interplay of urban governance, planning, and sustainable development efforts is exemplified by a large government programme on centralised water management, which was approved in 2013 as part of the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT). Through this programme, a water supply system was set up for a majority of the households in Leh, along with the installation of the first sewage system and sewage treatment plant. Currently, drinking water is sourced from two main springs; many private and public boreholes; and during winter when the taps are frozen, from water tankers. 

This centralised water management plan shows spatial inequalities in terms of its effectiveness, and the lack of public participation in conceptualizing and implementing it. Besides insufficient water supply and increasing water consumption due to rising tourism and inhabitation, water pollution has become a major problem. As most people use septic tanks or soak pits for wastewater disposal, sewage water drains into the irrigation canals and groundwater, resulting in supply problems. This problem was evidenced when one of the two main springs for drinking water in Leh was shut down because of contamination in 2017. The new system will establish a water supply system for the majority of households in Leh.

The most critical problem of urban planning is the increased vulnerability to natural hazards, exacerbated by construction activities on alluvial fans and near riverbeds which are affected by flash floods and debris flows after torrential rainfall.

Massive flash floods have occurred frequently in the region over the past decade (in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2015 and 2018). During the most extreme event in August 2010, 234 people died and more than 800 were injured in Leh and surrounding villages, according to media reports.

Built-up areas on barren land, where a large number of Tibetan refugees and labour migrants live, were heavily affected by debris flows from adjoining slopes and tributaries. However, enormous population growth and uncontrolled urban sprawl together with a lack of adequate regulations, have led to (re)constructions in hazard-prone areas, which were severely affected by the 2010 flood.

Challenges to Leh’s urbanisation

The case study of Leh reveals an array of diverse patterns, drivers, and challenges characterising the process of mountain urbanisation. To analyse the complexity and connectivity of these key aspects of urbanization, an integrative approach is required. Pattern recognition and detailed change detection of urban structures are only possible using very high-resolution remote sensing data.

Analysing the spatio-temporality of urban development in Leh, the study found three main characteristics:

  1. Expansion of urban areas into barren land,
  2. Expansion of urban areas into agricultural land, and 
  3. Densification of already existing built-up areas.

As only limited fertile land is available in Leh, urban expansion also encroaches onto barren land. Comparable to other rapidly urbanising Himalayan towns, mostly at the foothills, the study found administrative, economic, and sociocultural factors driving urban change in Leh. These distinct trends have led to planning challenges and the need for appropriate measures to cope with adverse environmental effects.

The findings raise questions on the consequences of such rapid urbanisation on urban and environmental governance, especially with regard to water resources and natural hazards, and offers practical recommendations for sustainable town planning.

The paper can be accessed here 

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