After the Deluge – Flash Floods in Ladakh

We arrived in Leh on the 1st of September 2010. It was a little over 3 weeks since the flash flood and it was good to see the guys from the office were all safe. It was obvious though that they’d all been through a lot. Listening to their stories from that terrible night of August 6th really highlighted the scale and terror of this freakish event. It was such a harrowing experience that many in Leh, for many nights after, slept out in the surrounding hillsides in fear of more flash flooding.

It came in the early hours of the morning. ‘Cloud bursts’ as many as six or seven catastrophic downpours that hit the Indus Valley just after midnight. My good friend Rigzin lost his house that night and almost his entire family. In all 17 houses were washed away in his suburb, and 3 of his neighbours lost their lives. As Police Superintendent Rigzin is responsible for registering all deaths in the region. As of the 2nd of September 234 people were confirmed dead. The worst affected area was Choglamsar just 10kms from Leh. Here 46 lost their lives with another 46 still missing. Houses lost – 250 plus. The total number of those missing however is still unknown, and include a huge number of itinerant workers from Nepal and Bihar that were camped beside the river that night. They were in direct line of the wall of water and mud, that picked up cars and trucks like toys, and simply washed them away never to been seen again.

The government and a number of NGO’s setup a tented camp just above Choglamsar and allocated land nearby for the building of new houses. This however will take much time and I’m afraid for many it’s going to be a very long hard cold winter. A good friend Tsewang Dorjey showed us around the camp. He explained what was being done to help rebuild shattered lives and the counseling work he was doing to try and help maintain a sense of hope and dignity.

Aside from the housing issue, the destruction of agricultural land is another major problem as a result of this disaster. Chospal, one of our guides, took me to his family property in the small village of Stakmo only a few kilometres from Choglamsar. Silt, mud and rocks had covered nearly their entire property, destroying their existing crops and rendering their land useless for years to come. It will take countless months of back breaking work to bring it back to what had been a livelihood handed down for generations. Many others experienced the same fate and it poses serious problems for both surviving the winter and the viability of future growing seasons.

In the remote village of Hanu, many kms from Leh to the north west, 24 houses were completely washed away. As this village sits way outside the Leh District they will more than likely go unnoticed for quite some time and be the very last to receive any form of assistance.

Noticeable of course in Leh was an absence of tourists. Many after the disaster left as soon as possible. Others decided to stay and help and there were many touching stories of foreigners working side by side with Ladakhi’s and the army, helping to rescue survivors and assist with the clean up. The media beat up of doom, gloom and disease however kept many intending tourists away for the rest of the 2010 season. When I arrived with my group of motorcycle riders we found a very different reality. The Ladakhi’s were as friendly and charming as ever, Leh was in good shape and we were very well looked after indeed.

It’s now more than ever that Ladakh needs support from the outside world to help rebuild its economy, infrastructure and self confidence. As a predominantly Buddhist culture it may give a certain degree of solace to know that ‘nothing in life is permanent ‘, it would however be also comforting to know that there are those ready to show them the same sort of ‘compassion’ they freely give to all those who visit their remarkable region.

By Matthew Swait

Since this was written World Horizons have teamed up with CETOP to help the people of Hanu rebuild their houses.


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