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Calamity: Cloudburst in Choglamsar, Ladakh

August 9, 2010

Jai Kumar Sharma,ET Bureau
Economic TImes (India)
August 9, 2010

Eccentric and unheard of cloudburst in
Choglamsar, Ladakh, on August 6, claimed hundreds
of lives while several hundreds are still
missing. Buildings were razed, communication
lines snapped and highways leading to Srinagar
and Manali washed away. Massive destruction,
caused by over 250 cm rainfall in an hour,
resulted in unprecedented floods and mudslides in
the centre of Ladakh. Rescue work is still on,
and one should not be surprised if the toll
figure goes over 500, as far flung areas in
Nubra, villages on the eastern and western slops
of Chang La and densely populated villages
between Upshi and Rumtek are still waiting for help to reach.

A few questions are required to be answered
before nature is blamed for the tragic lost of
lives and property. First, in the absence of
monsoon winds, how did heavy rainfall occurred?
Did global warming play a role in the calamity?
Can the transformation of Ladakhi Nomadic
lifestyle into agrarian society be partly blamed
for the torrential rains? And most importantly, why Choglamsar?

Any geographer can answer the first question.
Ladakh is a highland desert, strongly guarded by
Peer Panjal, the Himalayas and the Stok and
Zanskar ranges, which do not allow any moist air
to reach the Indus valley. Areas miles away from
moist sea winds usually receive precipitation by
“convectional rainfall”. Warm, moist air starts
rising from local water bodies and vegetation due
to solar heat. With the increase in height this
warm, moist air starts cooling and forms clouds
after condensation. As clouds continue to grow,
the weight of the water droplets can eventually
lead to precipitation, and at times, torrential
rains if come in contact with cold air currents
at high altitudes— normally called cloudburst.
However, normally this occurs over tropical river
basins in the hills (Malpa and Kinnaure in
Himachal are the recent examples), where
vegetations and river channels provide much
needed water content and increase relative
humidity. Ladakh is an exception for such
climatic conditions because of unavailability of
widespread water bodies, thick vegetation and
cold climate. Then what went wrong?

Did climate change or global warming played a
role here? Yes, it did something what was never
experienced in Ladakh’s history. The average
temperature has gone up by almost three degrees
in the last two decades and one can see group of
tourists walking in T-shirts in crowded Leh
Bazaar. Mercury jumps over 30 degrees and
provides prefect conditions for “Convectional rainfall”.

But rivers like Indus, Zanskar, Suru, Shyok were
always there -- can small variation in
temperature create such a catastrophe? No, there
is something else which slowly and steadily
invited the trouble. it’s the transformation of
nomadic Ladakhi society into agrarian society.
Widespread irrigated green fields and plantation
along major river valleys across Ladakh provided
much needed moister to rising warm air
responsible for cumulonimbus clouds. Ladakh was a
nomadic society, mainly dependent on livestock
products and locally available natural resources.
Leh, Khlasar, Kargil and Padum were small hamlets
of kuccha houses and few shops; Thiksey, Shey,
Phutkul, Lamayuru, Hemis and Alchi monastries
preserved Buddhist art and culture within their
structures built with mud walls and thatched
roofs, wall paintings (Thousand Buddhas) of Alchi
monasteries were intact for hundreds of years
before it first experienced rains in the
nineties. Ladakh used to receive below 20 cm of
precipitation annually which made this highland
desert fall in the category of Gobi, Atakama and
Tibet plateau, with snow-fed rivers sneaking
through rugged mountains and deep gorges;
exposing very little to sun resulting in
negligible evaporation and almost no rainfall.

Things changed rapidly over the sparsely
populated desert after 1962 Chinese invasion and
deployment of Army over Siachen in mid-eighties.
Border Road Organization (BRO) built roads till
the fag-ends of the borders. The world’s three
highest passes—Khardung La, Tanglang La, Chang La
—all at over 17,000 feet height got all-weather,
motorable roads. Civil administration opened new
schools and hospitals in far-flung areas, laid
communication lines and provided employment to
locals. Money was poured into agricultural and
irrigation schemes. Rapid overall development
resulted in population boom, multi-fold increase
in arable land and expansion of permanent human
settlements. Rugged brown mountains along the
rivers got converted into green zones. The Indus
valley from Upshi to Khalsar is no way inferior
to the Kashmir valley in terms of marvellous
landscape, greenery, fertility and prosperity.
The Sham region turned into apricot basket of
India with thriving villages like Thimisgam or
Hemisukpachan and Likir. The Nubra valley, known
for double-humped camel and sand dunes at 3500
meters above sea, started extensively growing
Leh-berry (Chhester Lulu), barley, vegetable and
other unconventional crops across Shyok and
Siachin rivers. Villages by Saltoro range such as
Bukthang, Turtuk and Tyakshi turned the entire
landscape into green. Once dominated by thorny
bushes, Dishkit, Hunder and Panamik turned into
tourist hubs. Zanskar and Markha valleys also followed the trend.

Thousands of hectares of new irrigated green
fields and acres of new tree plantations, spread
the water from narrow rivers over a large surface
exposed to evaporation, ultimately resulting in
unprecedented torrential rains. Rapid growth of
human population and green fields for food
tempered the eco-system of a high-land arid
region, leading to the catastrophe of August 6.

Why Choglamsar, everyone seems to ask today.
Ladakh is the biggest district of the country
with an area of over 95,000 sq km, but why
calamity struck Choglamsar, a tiny settlement 6
km away from Leh town, known for scrap market of
discarded army goods on the Manali highway.
Ironically, it’s in the bull’s eye of
tempered-eco system. The Indus becomes wider near
Choglamsar and Shey areas. If we look at the
geography of the region, Choglamsar is in the
centre of the green belt. Villages (Latho, Gaya,
Miru) across slopes from Tanglang La to Upshi
turned into major farming areas, nearby Hemis and
Stok villages expanding its green belt every
year. The Indus valley down Choglamsar completely
turned green till Khalsar. High Stok range in
south and Ladakh range in the north converts the
area into bottom of a bowl. Widespread green
fields with moisten, open water surface of the
Indus and rising day temperature provides
favourable and deadly conditions for cloud
formation, which created havoc on the area settled on loose soil mountains.

Increasing rainfall first raised eyebrows of some
local environmental groups in 1992-93 and they
warned about the consequences of changing a
high-land desert into a green belt. But nobody paid heed to this.

Ladakh was never ready for rains, mud houses and
monasteries with thatched roofs are still
standing on mountains of loose soil without deep
foundations. Infrastructure developed for arid
zone were shattered with the first stroke of
nature’s retaliation. The Indus Valley may
experience increase in rainfall in the coming
years. Should we go for sustainable growth
honouring local eco-system or just choose rapid
growth for economy? We have to think seriously
standing on the rabbles of Choglamsar.
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