Ladakh in peril

The cloudburst that struck Ladakh on Thursday has left behind a trail of death and devastation. The death toll has crossed 130 with around 450 people reported missing. Hundreds of homes have gone under water following the flash floods. The Srinagar-Leh Highway has been cut off as a crucial bridge between Syong and Nemu was washed away. With the Manali-Leh road hit by a landslide, this route into the disaster-hit region is blocked. The runway at Leh airport, which was under mud, has been cleared enabling rescue and relief planes to land. A camp of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police too has been severely damaged. Rescue operations are on but these efforts are hampered by the destruction of transport and communication infrastructure. Medical help for the injured too has been undermined as Leh’s main hospital has been flattened. Relief operations during natural disasters are always difficult as infrastructure is destroyed. This problem is all the more acute in Ladakh’s case given the altitude of this region. Current rescue and relief efforts are focusing on Leh. There will be communities in isolated and remote parts of this district that will need attention too.

Heavy rains and consequent floods and landslides have been reported across the Himalayan region. Strife-torn NWFP in Pakistan is now battling the havoc caused by floods. But heavy rains and floods in South Asia during this time of the year are an annual event. They are routine. Rains, especially cloudbursts, in Ladakh are not. Ladakh is a rain shadow region. The mighty Himalayas act as a barrier to advancing monsoon clouds. Hence, this is a region that gets just around 9 cm of rain annually. On Thursday, Leh reportedly received an unprecedented 2 cm of rain — what it receives on annually over the entire month of August annually — within minutes.

If natural hazards are turning into disasters in India and other parts of Asia, it is because our preparedness to face them is low. A cloudburst, while not expected, should not be crippling our cities and towns. They are because infrastructure we have in place is flimsy. It was not the cloudburst that brought Mumbai to its knees in July 2005 but its shoddy infrastructure and poor preparedness for natural hazards. And it is similar substandard infrastructure — shaky houses and public buildings — that collapsed like a pack of cards under a cloudburst in Leh.

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