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Sustainable Tourism in the Desert

Sustainable tourism is a hot topic in the desert state of Rajasthan. Our India expert, Maddie, went to see how the locals are adapting to climate change.

In winter, Rajasthan, the ‘desert state’ of India is a beautiful contradiction. The landscape is covered in lush foliage and meadows, and the streams are full of water. But in the summer the land is parched, the grasses are all brown, and the only splashes of colour are from the acacia trees, which still support a few resilient green leaves. However, all the animals, plants and people that live here are accustomed to the annual cycle of the long dry season, always followed by the relief of the monsoon that refills their rivers and reservoirs. Year round, Rajasthan is full of life.

To quickly run through some figures, 40% of the total population of Rajasthan live in the Thar desert, a vast expanse that covers a swathe of northern India and Pakistan. As of 2012, that meant that twenty-seven million, five hundred and fifty-six thousand people were living in the Rajasthani portion of the world’s 17th largest desert, making it also the world’s most widely populated desert. (For comparison over the same period, London had a population of 8 million). These aren’t just traditional nomads and farming hamlets either- over hundreds of years, flourishing cities have emerged from the sand, although it’s almost still as normal to see a camel and cart in the streets as it is a bicycle.

Thar Desert, Rajasthan

Despite these 27.5 million people living in modern cities with office blocks and motorways, water is still a very scarce and precious commodity. The groundwater in Rajasthan is mostly saline and located almost inaccessibly deep underground, so whenever the seasonal rains fall they are carefully collected in tanks and reservoirs and used for drinking throughout the year. The Indira Gandhi Canal brings water to a vast amount of land in the Thar, and the desert residents are well aware of their reliance on this narrow supply of water. In Jodhpur, the ‘gateway to the Thar Desert’, the water only flows to local homes at certain hours, or on alternate days, so locals are very accustomed to rationing their supply.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in this environment, climate change and water conservation were the go-to topics with every person I spoke with during my time in northern India. If you thought the British liked to talk about weather, just mention climate to a Rajput and conversation will flow for hours!

Jodhpur, Rajasthan

Many hotels in Jodhpur are quick at adapting to the changing climate and water shortages by large measures such as removing their bathtubs and only providing showers. Others are helping by installing specialised taps that create a water rich mist to wash your hands without wasting a drop. Government incentives encourage people to install solar panels on their homes and businesses, or for those who cannot afford the panels, simply to paint their roofs white to reflect the sun. Solar ovens are also a great way to harvest the energy of the sun to make simple meals and bread, and most properties also support an organic farm that they maintain with the excess ‘grey water’ from guest bathrooms.

The people of Jodhpur are proud of their long tradition of successfully eking out an existence in the dust and heat, so this makes it an excellent place to see life adapting on the very front lines of climate change. As visitors to this precarious region, it’s our responsibility spend our tourist dollars wisely and support the properties that are leading change for the better. By paying a supplement to offset our carbon emissions when we fly, supporting the properties that are developing strategies to reduce their resource consumption and even by the small measures such as carrying reusable water bottles and bags, we can preserve this beautiful desert and its inhabitants for future generations.

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