Monday, August 9, 2010

Disastrous cloudburst in Ladakh

Jai Kumar Sharma in the Economic Times (India): 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 slopes 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?

…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…..

The 'sangam' meaning confluence of Zanskar and Sindu rivers in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, India. Shot by Incomposition, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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