A desert that is flooding– leaving psychological and livelihood scars, and a people trying their best to endure these hardships. Ladakh is beautiful, brutal, and blemished by climate change.
Arching over the white Phuktal river in Ladakh’s Zanskar valley—which is dotted with white-water rafting enthusiasts—is one bridge that the village of Neyrags calls its own.
For centuries, the villagers say, they have had a bridge. People took pictures of its stout structure, which appeared permanent in its reliability, and over-arching in its craggy height. Elders told youngsters how they did not know when the bridge was built. For the people of Neyrags, the bridge, non-motorable as it is, was a vital link to the world outside their valley.
Earlier this year, the river carried away this structure, carrying off wood, stone and clay, all in one angry day. The incident happened in a flash but it was in itself a predicted event, a chronicle foretold—repeatedly, loudly, and in vain.
The Neyrags bridge was one among 11 other bridges to be snatched away in a day, on May 7, in the remote Zanskar valley. But the river had given warnings that never reached Delhi.
In December, a landslide created a natural dam on the river. A resultant lake was formed: deep, frozen, and formidable. Locals predicted it was likely to burst if the dam was not broken. While the mountains and gorges of Ladakh look permanent, people stress that this is a landscape that is constantly shifting. The land often converts to landslides and mudslides, especially when it rains. The combination of two elements—water and terra firma—in one sliding, heaving motion is deadly.
Led by engineer and social activist Sonam Wangchuk, citizens and farmers first suggested the dam be broken gently with jets of water, to prevent more landslides and flooding.
“All the farmers of Ladakh know Ladakhi soil is very loose, very dry,” Wangchuk says. “If we suddenly try to create a passage for water, through blasting or explosions, the flow of the water over this soil would be uncontrollable.”
When a team from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reached Ladakh in April, they decided to use explosives anyway. Using blasting techniques, a narrow canal was created, which was videographed as a success story.
In the beginning, all seemed well. Then, as predicted, the lake burst on May 5, inundating over 20 villages, of which Neyrags was one.
The people of Neyrags, a village both windy and remote, never had it easy even with a bridge. After crossing it they have to walk four hours to reach the main road. From this road, vehicles ply and cell-phones work. The high, narrow bridge is therefore the artery of life.
When this artery was cut, the village went back in time. Donkeys and livestock which carry essential rations were stranded, and many were left starving. Colleges and schools on the “other side” remained unattended. People wondered what to do, because no one remembered how to make a bridge again. Food was running out.
“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.
“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.”
All he knows is that no cement was used.
About 20 days after the flood, the government provided a rope-pulley system for people to cross. It wasn’t enough. Donkeys and mules, essential carriers of essential items, still could not cross. Schools and many other buildings remained broken and needed attention. The new structure itself seemed rickety, and the dizzying drop to the river below seemed fatal.
Taking their destiny—and their lives—into their own hands, the people decided to make their own bridge. A meeting was held with the elders.
“You know, in Ladakh we always see natural calamities. Like you city people see traffic,” says Tsewang Namgyal from Neyrags. “In winter, snow avalanches come in our village. And we have seen a lot of rainfall in the past few years. But even then, we didn’t think we would lose our bridge. It was about six storeys high. Can you imagine how angry the water was, to take away something six storeys high?”
The village meeting led to the formation of smaller parties of people. Each day for about two months, 25 people worked. While bridge-making is not part of inherited memory, people did have a lot of photographs of the structure. They also had raw material, from the same mountains that rained debris down on them. Rock, wood and clay were procured from surrounding areas and mountain ranges. Most of the stone and clay was chiselled with hammers from mountains, in small teams, so that rocks could slowly be carried back.
A hunt was launched for dry poplar beams, which was easier to carry than trees with crowns. A remarkable crowd-funding programme was started. People started building from both ends, using log beams and stone that layered onto each other.
After two months of work, the bridge, made to withstand weight of 250 kilograms, opened on August 2. The first to cross was the deputy sarpanch of the village. Then a troop of children crossed. Finally, a bunch of donkeys crossed over to bring supplies. The artery was flowing again, and tiny Neyrags was back on the map.
If the people of Neyrags could stoically and cheerfully build their own bridge—cheating death, isolation, and the clenched fist of destiny—it is because Ladakhis appear to be somewhat adjusted to the hardships they expect to face. The hardships, unfortunately, are many.
In 2010, this high-altitude dry desert and favoured tourist destination hit national headlines for a “flash flood”. Over 250 people and around 25,000 livestock were reported dead. Since 2010, Ladakh has been flooded many times. Water has swirled into houses, carried away cows and goats, bitten off chunks of fields, and washed bridges away. The high altitude desert is experiencing weather patterns that are harder to predict and even harder to live with.
Somehow, unfairly and consistently, this has escaped the country’s attention.
Rainfall and cloudbursts, in unpredictable and varying amounts, have led to floods in a desert. In the past five years, villages in Ladakh have been flooded. The rainfall data for Leh for July and August vary hugely over different years.
June 2011 recorded rainfall of 0.3 millimetre (mm). This tripled in June 2012 to 3.9 mm, and tripled again in June 2014 to 6.5 mm. In August 2014 too, the patterns were unpredictable: in 2010, rainfall was an all-time high at 9.6 mm, leading to the region’s worst flood. In 2011, the rainfall was 9.5 mm. In August 2012, the rain was much less at 2.6 mm.
The 2010 flood was caused by rain over just one day: August 6. On that day, over 12 mm of rain fell all over Ladakh, including Leh, just short of 15 mm which is the average for the entire month of August. This is not a lot for other parts of India, but was a cataclysmic disaster for Ladakh’s dry, unconsolidated soil.
Over the same soil, livestock forage and crops are grown, the mainstays of the economy. From these occupations, captivating crafts have evolved. The fresh vegetables of the area—potatoes, peas, carrots—feed many. The famous pashmina shawls of Kashmir procure their pashmina—the hair of a high-altitude goat—from the snowy pastures of Ladakh.
For a long time, farmers and shepherds thought they could count on the predictability of life’s hardships. In Miru village, Tsering Namgial shears his pashmina goat, all the while singing to it, while his scissors move.
This is a song to make the goats alert, it tells the goat that it is beautiful, but it is also a warning: asking the goat to beware of the mountain, snow and wolves in the snow, says the farmer. “If I don’t sing to my goat while shearing him, he will get bored. I am not only singing to him but also giving him strength against all that he has to face.”
But traditional songs address traditional threats. There are new problems now. “The rain, it rains anytime now, and the pastures and fields are under threat,” he says.
The people of the desert are not used to seeing so much rain. Fields are on the banks of mighty rivers like the Indus and Zanskar, and smaller canals run through many others. In the desert, almost all fields are ploughed near sources of water. None of this prepares the farmer for floods which turn fields into flood plains. Miru village is on the Leh-Manali highway, just a couple of hours from Leh. The highway itself, like many roads in Ladakh, curves adjacent to the river.
Last year, Miru was flooded, from a reported glacier lake outburst. This is clearly a trend. The first ever census of glacial lakes in the Himalayas, published in Global and Planetary Change journal, finds that glacier lakes are expanding in the Himalayas. The census found 4,981 lakes in the Indus systems. The study finds these lakes significantly increase the risk of flooding and landslides.
After last year’s flooding, this year, too, the people of Miru rallied together under a cloudburst. Following about 10 minutes of constant rainfall, villagers gathered in the community hall, made of ply and wood. Outside, in the blinding rainfall, a group of people were pointing and shouting. Someone’s cow was stranded near a swelling canal, and the people strategised, over shouts, to rescue it.
Cell phones don’t work in the village, and despite a highway, the fear of isolation is real. The community hall’s roof leaked, but villagers felt the hall was safer than their own houses, which are made of mud and clay.
For centuries, Ladakhis have built houses of mud and clay, cool in summer and warm in the bone-chilling winters. Now with piercing showers, many houses get dissolved or broken.
For centuries, Ladakhis have built houses of mud and clay, cool in summer and warm in the bone-chilling winters. Now with piercing showers, many houses get dissolved or broken.
Fifty-year-old Rigzen Lahadol lives in Gya village, also on the Manali highway. Whenever it rained, people moved to the top of the mountain. “When the flood came, we were sleeping. The water came all around us, and we were not prepared,” she says.
With frequent evacuations, people are better prepared today but they are not comfortable. Many families have men working in the army while the women stay behind. In the 2010 flood, 35-year-old Tsewang Dorjey who works in the army, was posted in Lebanon. His wife, Dachen Dokler, two young children, and elderly mother were sleeping in their mud house in Miru when the flood came. The family was sleeping in the kitchen, on the first floor of their house, which is surrounded by agricultural fields.
“There is snow in the winters, and now, rain in the summers. But when we shut the windows to go to bed, we assume we will be fine. But in 2010, we woke up to find water everywhere,” says 65-year-old Tashi Angmo, Tsewang’s mother. At that time, all she could think of was to grab her grandchild’s leg and make for the highest point in the village—a mountain, dripping and shaken to the core.
This year, rainfall in July-August brought even urban areas to a standstill. In Baltal, a huge landslide brought traffic on the Leh-Srinagar highway to a halt for three days, impeding movement to Kargil, the venue for the national celebrations of Vijay Diwas on July 26. In the first week of August, the Leh airport was closed for a day as an unforeseen event happened: rain caused the tarmac to be covered by debris, even in the middle of Ladakh’s largest city.
The Leh-Manali road had landslides in a reported 100 spots. “Yeh jannat hai, aur jahannum bhi (this is heaven, this is also hell),” says my Kashmiri driver about Ladakh.
Heaven and hell is a good way to describe the towering but bare, fragile mountains, and the life-giving but furious, torrential rivers. In the shade, the cold can give you frostbite. And in the sun, the high-altitude, blinding white light adorns beautiful pale Ladakhis with premature wrinkles.
The windswept, severe landscape can bring loneliness and overwhelm people trying to carve a modest living under nature’s stern eye. The area does not naturally allow the growth of trees. If trees are planted, they have to be watered and cared for in summer, and frequently de-thawed in winter, else they will not grow.
And yet, villagers have worked together, bound by a strong community feeling and shared purpose—making this great desert hospitable. A few years ago, the concept of artificial glaciers was conceived by engineer Chewang Norphel. The idea was to store water in the winter before it ran off down Ladakh’s bare slopes. The concept was later modified by Sonam Wangchuk.
Using pipelines, water is stored, using the principle that water will have the same level inside a pipe. In winter, as it emerges from the pipe, the water freezes over in a conical shape, forming what the villagers now call “ice stupas”.
“In Ladakh, we are at the mercy of the mountains, the sun, the temperature. If you were to ask people here what the temperature is, they may not be able to tell you. They will just say ‘very cold, very hot’,” says Stanzin Dorjai, who was once a shepherd and is now an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. “In Ladakh, money is of no consequence for living with nature. Money can’t help you when it floods, or when you have to grow crops.”
Yet Dorjai feels the people of Ladakh don’t get their due, and there is no institution-building to equip them. “The students of Ladakh study about Kashmir, not Ladakh. They grow up feeling that perhaps their way of life is inferior, not so good.”
Others echo a deep sense of bipolarity that outsiders have towards Ladakh. One of those bipolarities is through the armed forces and border security units. Straddling two international borders—China and Pakistan—makes Ladakh a station for armed forces. The peripheries though, are skewed. Villages like Miru and Gya are on the national highway but have no mobile connectivity.
It is with a fair amount of bitterness that Leh-based Karma, who deals in construction, speaks. “In a border village, different agencies fall over themselves to make roads and repair bridges,” he says. “After the 2010 flood, areas of strategic importance had the army and the Border Roads Organisation competing to make roads. Leh is a strategic area and was repaired pretty quickly. But nobody gives a thought for other villages, which are not strategic links—like the ones in the Zanskar valley. In the last strategic village, Shayuk, a gymnasium has been made for the people! Why should a few villages get it all, and others, absolutely nothing?”
A gymnasium seems like a cruel joke for people from other villages, who toil all day in Ladakh’s thin air. Anybody who visits Ladakh would know that the last thing the villagers need is a gymnasium.
The larger question is: why does the outside world not listen to the sentiments of the villagers, or pay heed to their knowledge? This year’s Zanskar flood is an example. “Not only did we make representations to NDMA and political leaders, we also asserted again and again that we know the soil we are talking about, and that blasting the soil would lead to a flood. Nobody listened to us. The NDMA still thinks they did a fine job, and they averted a disaster. They spent a lot of money on helicopter hopping, but not in listening to local knowledge. Because of their bungle, many villages are still cut off today. What were the crores spent for?” Wangchuk says.
Indeed, the flood is not counted as a natural disaster. Since there was no direct human mortality on the day of the flood—one person died later while trying to cross a damaged bridge—the flood is not considered a tragedy. In a sense the incident this year is like many other climate-change impacts that Ladakh is facing, which don’t get quantified.
Given the new flood situations people are facing, some believe young people need to document and communicate the new areas being forged by water. Tashi Morup, 42, from the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation wants to school students and village youth to set up water monitoring systems. “We have held two workshops. We want to teach students video and photo documentation, also with the hope that these new techniques will make them interested in the agricultural pasts of their forefathers,” he says.
Villages so far have had churpan, traditional water-harvesting systems in which designated watchers saw that water was channelised equitably between villages. Now, with too much water coming too soon, the roles of water-watchers will need to change. Many feel that the greatest impacts of the floods are psychological—people still cannot believe the desert is flooding. In the harsh climate, losing income is common. But losing lives and livelihood to water, even after witnessing several floods, is not.
For most of India, Ladakh is about motorcycle trails, pious Buddhist people, good food, and a certain landscape which is forbidding in its beauty. The concept is to visit Ladakh in summer months, and leave before high altitude sickness hits, or before the climate
takes a toll.
The idea that an entire culture and people are heaving under climatic change has still not struck the Indian consciousness. Whether Ladakh is going through climate change in scientific terms or not can be debated. But what cannot be debated is the fact that people are suffering weather-related, grievous losses.
Despite the hardships, the people still think about living lives of piety, and try taking their hardships in their stride. For instance, when Phyang village flooded in both 2010 and this year people rushed to the 600-year-old monastery, built on a high hill, believing that they would be high, safe and dry. Llama Rigzin Dorje was nine when he first came to Phyang monastery. “Twelve people from this area died in the flood of 2010. By the grace of god, no one died this time,” he says.
He remembers the landscape when he was a boy. “It snowed a lot more before. We used to put plastic sheets on the slopes, and slide down. Water used to freeze over in containers inside rooms,” he says, adding that while Ladakh is still similar to his memories, now it does not snow so much.
“Many say we are poor, because we live a hand-to-mouth existence. But no, we are not poor.”
“Outsiders come to Ladakh because it’s beautiful. But they also come because of the people. People still have a strong sense of unity and community here. This I am proud of,” Dorjai says. “Many say we are poor, because we live a hand-to-mouth existence. But no, we are not poor.”
This first appeared in Fountain Ink.