Six years ago, I set out on my first solo trip in India. The destination was a barren, high altitude mountain desert in the Trans-Himalayas, and my mission was to volunteer and learn about sustainable tourism.
That trip changed my life.
The destination was Spiti and the organisation I volunteered with was Spiti Ecosphere.
Back to Spiti after 6 years!
Six years later, in August this year, when I finally decided to go back, it felt like life had come full circle. I had only one agenda in mind: to give back in what little way I could, to the place that changed how I perceive local communities, travel choices, and my own beliefs. My decision to return was sparked by a conversation with Ishita – the founder of Spiti Ecosphere – who lamented how much Spiti has changed over the years, and the dire need to raise more awareness of responsible travel in Spiti.
I nearly cried when the shared taxi deposited us in Kaza, the administrative capital of Spiti. The town that I remembered with only a couple of shops and guesthouses, a handful of travellers, and nothing but the barren mountains all around, has changed beyond recognition, taken over by chaotic concrete construction and shops and tourists.
The issues this environmentally-sensitive Himalayan region is dealing with are too many to summarise in one post. However, in collaboration with Spiti Ecosphere, astro-photographer Saurabh Narang, artist Michael Hickenberg, Instagrammer Aakash Ranison and fellow travellers passing through Spiti, we decided to focus on one big issue: plastic bottles.
Shocking facts about plastic bottled water in Spiti
- Based on a very conservative number of tourist arrivals, it is estimated that 3,00,000+ plastic bottles are dumped in Spiti every season.
- Imagine the irony of drinking bottled “Himalayan” water packaged in the plains and transported to the Himalayas, instead of drinking real (filtered) Himalayan water in Spiti!
- On the arduous journey from the plains, usually Punjab, to Spiti, the exposure to heat often causes bottles to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – a chemical known to cause cancer – into the bottled water.
- Bottled water is known to have less oxygen than groundwater, and in a high altitude region like Spiti, you need all the oxygen you can get.
- Even if discarded bottles are thrown in a dustbin, they typically end up in a dumping ground adjacent to the Spiti River. They take a minimum of 500 years to degrade, but no one knows exactly how long yet.
- If reused by locals, these one-time use bottles leach harmful chemicals into the liquids stored in the bottle. The nearest recycling centre is ~500 kilometres away in Punjab.
- If burnt or buried, the bottles release harmful chemicals into the air, groundwater or soil, ultimately landing in the local food or water. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalance and other serious ailments.
To discourage the use of plastic bottles, we worked on three levels:
Local businesses in Spiti: Without safe alternatives to bottled water, it would be impossible to discourage their usage. So we began the conversation with hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza to install water filters and sell BPA-free water bottles that can be reused, as well as bottles fitted with a filter, like LifeStraw. Ecosphere is now working on a comprehensive map of Kaza, mapping out all water refilling stations across town – and we hope to replicate the efforts in major tourism destinations like Losar and Tabo. Through offline Google Maps, travel blogs and physical maps, we aim to make this map accessible to every traveller who visits Spiti in 2018.
Local community in Spiti: Turns out, most locals in Spiti have been reusing plastic water or fizzy drink bottles to store milk, araakh (the local liquor) and water. In a meeting with Kaza’s women’s self-help group, we shared studies that reveal how harmful chemicals leech from the bottles into the liquids over time – and showcased it with a live demonstration of an empty bottle exposed briefly to the heat of a candle. Try it yourself, to see how it melts and fumes. Pregnancy and heart problems, cancer and other diseases are on the rise in rural Spiti, and this could well be a contributing reason. The alternative for locals is simple – stainless steel containers to store liquids, available locally.
Travellers visiting Spiti (and the Himalayas in general): Lack of awareness among travellers visiting Spiti – both about the health / environmental damage caused by plastic bottled water and the option of drinking filtered Himalayan water – results in 3,00,000+ bottles dumped on the riverbed every season, and that number will only grow with the surge of tourism. So we came up with an idea…
The “I Love Spiti” installation
The idea occurred to me on the shared taxi ride from Manali to Spiti. We were awaiting our turn as each vehicle ahead of us tried to manoeuvre the stream flowing past the road. Outside, I could see mounds of trash along the river bed. Just then, a fellow passenger opened a candy bar and threw the plastic wrapper right out of the window! It angered me and my other co-passengers, and we started explaining to him why he should keep his trash in his pocket till he finds a dustbin.
If you keep throwing wrappers like this, there’ll be no mountains left. All we’ll have are mountains of plastic. And as I told him that, it struck me that we should create exactly that – an artwork of a mountain of plastic to illustrate what we are doing to our mountains.
The artwork idea emerged into a lifesize “I Love Spiti” installation after a discussion with Spiti Ecosphere. All around the world, people take photographs with “I Love New York” and “I Love Amsterdam”. We decided to join the bandwagon, except that our “I Love Spiti” is made entirely of discarded plastic bottles, that we gathered from across Kaza and even retrieved from the dumping ground! The heart alone is made of 300+ bottles, and everyone who takes a photo with the installation pledges to say no to plastic bottled water, atleast while in Spiti.
Michael Hickenberg, an artist from Australia, played an integral role in shaping the installation. It is an amalgamation of the creativity, sweat and physical hardwork of locals and fellow travellers, many of who just happened to see us work on it while passing through Kaza!
The installation can be found near the Kaza gate (near Rangrik Bridge, on the way to/from Kee Monastery); it’ll be dismantled at the end of October 2017 for the harsh winter and reinstalled in June 2018.
InstaMeet at 12,000+ feet in Kaza
When I heard that the Worldwide InstaMeet was taking place from 8th to 10th September, I knew right away that we had to do one in Kaza, probably the highest InstaMeet in the world – and my first one as a host. Even at 12,000+ feet in this remote Himalayan town, we had a roomful of locals and travellers, and a thought-provoking discussion around responsible travel and how to eliminate plastic bottled water from Spiti.
At the InstaMeet, my fellow traveller and photographer Saurabh showcased a video he shot around Kaza, interviewing locals on how the town has changed, and travellers on the use of plastic bottles. Then we piled into the cars / camper trucks of locals, headed down to the installation spot, and had the King of Spiti (yes!) unveil it.
It so happened that the local politician and his convoy were driving past as we were photographing the installation, and they stopped by to pledge off plastic bottles themselves! How often do you get to say that your InstaMeet was crashed by a local politician? 😉
Even though our shitty internet connection in Spiti didn’t let us post on Instagram in real time, we were really grateful for the support of fellow Instagrammers who had travelled to Spiti in the past, and supported our campaign real-time with #IloveSpiti.
The road ahead
This is just the beginning. By next season, we hope to have a sizeable number of hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza equipped with water filters and filter-fitted bottles, the groundwater in Spiti tested for minerals, a comprehensive map of Kaza marking out all water refill stations, cute signs made with discarded plastic bottles indicating water refill stations, and posters that reveal shocking facts about plastic bottled water. If you plan to travel to Spiti, consider volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere to help accomplish these objectives.
How can you help as a traveller visiting Spiti
- Take a photo with the installation and pledge to say NO to plastic bottled water in Spiti. As of now, you can refill your bottles with safe, filtered drinking water at Taste of Spiti, Sol Cafe, Hotel Deyzor, Zostel and Delek House in Kaza. Most homestays in the upper villages of Spiti also have water filters.
- Before you book your tour, hotel, homestay or guesthouse in Spiti, ask in what ways they contribute to environmental conservation in Spiti. The best way to make businesses care is to demand it as their potential customers.
- Volunteer with Spiti Ecosphere – in Spiti or virtually – to take this project to the next level.
- Carry your non-biodegradable waste back from Spiti, and dispose it in a big city where some form of waste management or recycling is in place. For me, doing this puts in perspective how much plastic waste I generate, and inspires me to consume less plastic-wrapped junk food!
- Encourage your fellow travellers to do all of the above.
I’m hardly an optimist, but even as we overcame apathy from locals, travellers and commercial establishments in Spiti and faced some setbacks, I still felt like everything we do as individuals counts. Every less plastic bottle used and disposed counts. Every voice discouraging their usage counts. Every blog post that urges travellers to switch to eco-friendly alternatives counts. Every responsible travel choice counts.
Do you use plastic bottled water when you travel? What alternatives have you found? Any bright ideas to take the “I Love Spiti” campaign to the next level?
If you have interesting ideas for environment-focussed travel campaigns, drop me a note!
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