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Ladakh paradise lost in a global warning

August 13, 2010

By Raja Murthy
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
August 12, 2010

MUMBAI - Paradise was buried under a vast,
cataclysmic mud flow that struck Ladakh district,
the beautiful Shangri-la in the Indian Himalayas,
last week, killing over 160 people in and outside Leh, the area's main town.

Flash floods and landslides near Leh, which in
two hours also destroyed two decades of
infrastructure growth, unleashed questions about
the fatal effects of pollution and shortsighted
economic development on millennia-old sensitive
ecological systems. Leh has become a terrible warning about global warming.

The disaster struck Leh and nearby villages early
on Friday, just after midnight. According to
accounts, a wave of mud 20 meters high and
several kilometers wide hit Choglamsar village,
practically carrying it away, then smashed the
village into Leh town about six kilometers distant.

Television pictures from the state-run
Doordarshan, after the disaster the sole media
link to Leh, showed scenes seemingly straight out
of Pompeii, with mud substituting for the lava
from Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the Roman town
in 79 AD. It was a chilling sight: a wave of
thick mud, still almost two meters high, eerily
lurching along a deserted street like a hungry, undulating snake.

The monster waves left behind smashed houses, a
white pick-up van crumpled like tissue paper and,
the worst sight for those in the area, arms and
legs of people buried alive seen sticking out of the deadly mud.

Hundreds of foreign tourists, including 100
Germans, were stranded in Ladakh district, one of
the most popular destinations in north India.
August is the peak tourist season in this remote
area, which has only a brief yearly window, from
June to September, of easy access to the outside
world. As of August 10, the Indian armed forces
had rescued most of the tourists.

The mud tsunami appears as nature's furious
response to a fragile ecosystem being messed
about with for decades. Development,
infrastructure changes, and agricultural
experiments to "green-up" the area by the army,
government, private businesses and institutions
have fractured the simple, traditional, nomadic
lifestyle of Ladakh and its Indo-Tibetan culture.

"The Leh calamity is the latest devastating
effect of unstable climatic change," said Vandana
Shiva, the globally renowned environmental
scientist, agriculture activist, particle
physicist and director of the New Delhi-based
Research Foundation on Science, Technology, and
Ecology. She said similar landslides had happened
in 2005 in Ladakh but went largely unnoticed because no one died.

"There's an attempt on now to mystify what is
happening in Ladakh, attributing it to
cloudbursts, for instance, but it’s basically
part of the global problem of pollution and
chaotic climate conditions," Shiva told Asia
Times Online while on a field trip to Dehradun town in the Himalayan foothills.

Shiva, who bore the misfortune of trying to
locate her friends missing and feared dead in
Ladakh, was entitled to feel vindicated by the
Leh disaster. Her report in May 16, 2009,
"Climate Change at the Third Pole", predicted impending disaster in the region:

Heavy rainfall which was unknown in the high
altitude desert has become more frequent, causing
flash floods, washing away homes and fields,
trees and livestock. Climate refugees are already
being created in the Himalayas in villages such
as Rongjuk. As one of the displaced women said,
"when we see the black clouds, we feel afraid.

Ladakh was mostly under dark clouds in freakish
weather when I arrived there exactly a year after
her report was released, on May 16 (see Trouble
in India's Shangri-La Asia Times Online, June 24,
2010). It was often rainy and bitterly cold in
the peak of the region's summer, including
snowfall one morning that astonished the locals.

I disembarked at the Kushok Rimpochee airport in
Leh, amid a spectacular Himalayan setting. But
now, mere weeks later, television images from the
tiny, picturesque airport symbolize sudden death
and desperation. Parts of the tarmac have been
smashed like a roll of pancake. Hundreds of
people squat inside the airport as Indian Air
Force planes ferry relief personnel and material.
The stranded include migrant workers, after many
of their employers became paupers overnight.

The streets in Leh that I had walked about months
earlier - past quaint Tibetan curio shops, cafes,
adventure tourism agencies and sundry little
establishments serving an international clientele
- will have to be rebuilt from ruins, the truth
of the impermanence of all things made brutally evident.

Leh and the rest of Ladakh, like in Tingmosang
village where I spent three weeks, are not built
to withstand the effects of heavy rain. Most
houses in this largely high altitude desert -
averaging about 3,352 meters above sea level -
are built out of fragile wood and clay. The
gray-brown soil imbues the barren, stunning
landscape with its curious hues, set against the
backdrop of the Greater Himalayan ranges of Zanskar, East Karokaram and Ladakh.

The August 6 mud tsunami was the deadly offspring
of intense, unseasonal rain, a fierce
two-centimeter deluge in about two hours, a stark
contrast to the average of nine centimeters
received on average each year. The resulting
flash floods soon stirred up the mud avalanche
that destroyed much of Leh and nearby villages.

Monasteries, monks and nuns appear to be only
segment of society Mother Nature has spared. "We
are all okay, and we are helping all those who
are still alive," a senior monk, Konchok Samten
Lama, told Asia Times Online on August 8 via a
satellite phone link, by then the only form of
telecommunications with Ladakh. Volunteers,
foreign tourists among them, were helping a
traumatized population, including thousands left homeless.

About two decades of tourism-related developments
and infrastructure lie buried in the mud.
Casualties include the two highways connecting
Leh to the rest of India - to Srinagar and to
Manali, two of the highest roads accessible by
motorized vehicles in the world. Also gone are
hospitals, schools, TV and phone communication
systems, small bridges and the Leh airport.

Dr Shiva highlighted the larger perspective of
this local tragedy - one that occurred as floods
affected more than 12 million people in Pakistan
and others in India, China, Germany and Poland,
and as forest fires devastated vast tracts of Russia.

The Himalayas, the "Third Pole" of the planet,
supports half of humanity, with its 5,240
glaciers feeding Asia's biggest rivers.

"The lives of billions are at stake," Shiva says
of climate change and disaster preparedness in
the world's biggest mountain range. "Local
people, such as Himalayan communities, are
experts on local ecosystems and the changes due
to a destabilized climate. It is this expertise
which needs to be mobilized for active solutions."

Leh has served a deadly reminder of the peril of
ignoring early warning signals from local people.
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