2010 Ladakh Fury: A Climate Change Warning
6th August 2010. It was around midnight when the clouds burst. Before the sun could rise, flash floods, debris flow and mudslides swept across Ladakh. Jolted from their sleep the men, women and children saw water gushing into their homes, taking with it all that came in its path and leaving behind devastation.
Scientists later attributed the cloudburst in the region to prolonged winters which may be due to climate change. This week as world leaders gather to discuss Climate Change- know that it is real, urgent and imperative that it is addressed.
The flash floods of Ladakh brought the crises to our very door steps. When the news flashed on the TV screens and I saw news teams on ground, I decided that I will go too. As a young reporter I wasn't going to be sent to cover the story, so I went as a volunteer.
It had been 3 weeks since the cloudburst and the flights had started operating. I put, in my bags all that I thought people there would need and started on a journey that would change me- for good.
Today, 5 years later that journey, those stories, that feeling of loss & the hope of rebuilding the future remains one of the most precious experiences of my life.
I put it down, here on this blog today so I can share with you what a seemingly small 2 degree change in climate can do to thousands of lives.
I headed towards the worst affected village- Choglamsar, on the outskirts of Leh town. The whole area was devastated, there were mounts of debris more than 20 ft high, broken walls, and lives- washed away.
I was at ground zero, looking at the aftermath of this great tragedy, imagining how pristine the place must have looked before the wrath of the rain gods.
Before I could totally comprehend these sights, a convoy of cars sped past. It was also the day when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Ladakh to address flood victims- to give hope to the people who had lost their all- their homes, their families. He was here to inspire them to move on with life. The learned Lama knew then what ecologists said later...He said "We really need more awareness about the importance of taking care of our ecology. This planet is our own home. This is the only planet where we can live."
Men On Mission
Carrying three huge bags filled with stuff donated by friends as their contribution for Ladakh, I moved on towards the Leh town. By now the afternoon sun and lack of oxygen due to high altitude had started showing its sign on me. I was parched. The region was struggling to get on its feet- there were no taxis and it was impossible even to find drinking water. As I walked on the barren land, a mini-truck with the sign "Leh Relief Mission", stopped in front of me. A surprised old man asked me why I was walking alone with huge bags. "I'm here to help," he smiled and asked me to hop on to his truck.
MP Mangi, with his group of volunteers had come all the way from Ludhiana, Punjab to participate in the relief operation. He took me to a site where they were building a big hall for the victims. Mangi said "It is extremely important to have a roof for the flood victims. The winters are around the corner and in the unbearable cold, it would become very difficult to stay inside those tents". He was right, those flimsy tents where most of the survivors were staying would stand no chance in the below freezing temperatures.
Skilled labours, college students, business men-all volunteers from their neighboring states- all doing their best to build this hall as quickly as possible. The hall would eventually turn into a Satsang Bhavan, once the flood victims were shifted to their respective homes.
Themselves, these volunteers were staying in make-shift camps. They were kind enough to offer me food during lunch break. And I couldn't say no- I could feel the warmth in their hearts in this cold dessert. It was time to say good bye to my first group of new friends- Mangi dropped me to a place where I could get a cab for Leh.
Lost Everything but Hope
Next morning, I reached the Solar resettlement camps, ahead of Choglamsar. White conical tents, their thin cloth trying to stay taut against the chilly September winds were sprawled on rugged earth. The State Government authorities and a few NGOs had been arranging basic necessities for the survivors. As I peeked inside these, expecting to come face to face with sorrow and loss- smiles greeted me.
These were survivors I met- with the spirit of warriors. They had lost their loved ones, lost whatever they had earned in life and still they were able to share their sorrows with smile on their faces. There was a sense of great loss, but there was also hope that it will be a new tomorrow.
Six to seven people sharing one tent, most had just one LPG cylinder. Some eggs and bread, instant noodles, chocolates, biscuits and tea packets was the only food supplies. They were mainly dependent on the stuff donated to them by NGOs and the authorities. Apart from this, each survivor was provided with a quilt, a pair of shoes and a few clothes. These were their only possessions. Even with this limited supply, every tent I went in offered me "chai" and biscuits and welcomed me into their temporary small homes and big hearts.
Back in Choglamsar, residents were working hard to rebuild their broken houses, I decided to join them in their battle.
My biggest fear while digging mud in these houses was, finding a dead body. Thank God, it didn't happen. The floods had claimed over 255 lives.
Every story of each survivor would send a shiver down my spine. Some of them questioned why God did this to them, some thanked Him for saving their lives.
The strength of these people was the sense of togetherness, they were all helping each other in the best way possible. I spent a few days with the locals of Choglamsar village. Every morning the work would start with the rising sun and would go on till dusk, and then all of us would go to our respective night shelters.
Away from the Leh town, a small school in the village Saspochey was damaged by the cloudburst, leaving the little kids without the classes.
A major portion of the school got affected by the floods, the classes were combined and temporary tents were built up for the students to study.
Snow Leopard Conservancy India was helping Saspochey and many other villages fighting the aftermath of the floods. I joined them as volunteer on one of their trips to Saspochey. Apart from getting funds for the school, they also provided the students with books and stationery, warm clothes and chocolates collected from donors.
In Prayers & Faith
On Leh-Manali highway in Choglamsar, there is a long prayer wall with a large flat top where stones with mantras scribbled on them are kept in the open. Major portion of this old wall called Zanak Manay was also got damaged and washed away with the flash floods. For faithful Ladakhi Buddhists, these prayer walls are as important as their own houses.
Most of the lucky ones, who escaped the cloudburst and their houses were saved, came to rebuild the prayer wall.
These were the people of all age group and this was their way to pray to the god and a way to thank Him. The men would build the base of the wall with big stones and the women and the older men worked on the top layer of the prayer wall. The women always sang local songs while working- songs of prayers.
While at the base, whenever we had to pick and shift a heavy rock, one man would call out "chik, nis" and all joined him with "sum", I also echoed with them without even knowing what I was saying. When I asked them what it was, they first laughed and then explained it to me that it was a cue to put in all our efforts at the same time to move the rock, it simple mean- "one, two...three."
Stanzin- a Ladakhi student at Jammu University came back home to help. He was the youngest one in the group of people working on Zanak Mane. I asked him if he was missing his classes at the University. He said "I couldn't stop myself from coming here after knowing my homeland got devastated by the cloudburst. I wasn't able to focus on studies. Here, I spend a few hours helping people and then study later in the day for few hours." I could totally relate to Stanzin.
Almost everyone in Ladakh got affected by the cloudburst in some way or the other. And each one wanted to lend a helping hand in getting the life back to normal in Ladakh. Everyday, a group of locals would arrange meals for the people working on the Zanak Manay.
I spent a couple of weeks visiting these flood affected sites in Ladakh, during my first ever visit to the mystic land. But it wasn't the last. Ladakh moved me and made me it's own, forcing me to keep returning. It's been more than five years since the worst tragedy Ladakh has ever faced. But, I wonder if we have learnt anything from that? My heart bled when hundred year old trees were uprooted from Leh town bazaar in the name of road widening. In five years the number of cars in Ladakh has gone up eight times than before, most of the houses in Leh town are converted into hotels and homestays, the glacier is melting at a much higher rate. The climate change is changing the landscape of the Himalayas. Floods and Cloudbursts in following years in Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh is more than a mere wake-up call.
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