I’ve Got the Flash Flood Blues

Was the deluge in Ladakh severe? Yes. Was it exaggerated and over-reported? Perhaps.

An overall view of the new construction in Leh. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA
An overall view of the new construction in Leh. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA
01 October, 2010

ONE THING ABOUT SCENES OF TRAGEDY AND DESTRUCTION: you begin to see in them irony here, paradox and conundrum there. It happened to me in New Orleans after Katrina, in Orissa after the 1999 cyclone, in Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, in Kutch after the quake. And it happens in Ladakh in mid-August, two weeks after the cloudburst and flash floods on the night of 5 August.

Some five kilometres east of Leh, on the Manali highway, is the town of Choglamsar. The flood tore this place apart in a way that is hard to look at, harder to comprehend. What power unleashed turned a crowded neighbourhood into this ghost town that resembles 1980s Beirut, or 1940s Dresden, and did it in 15 minutes? This is just what I have in my head as I roam through deserted Choglamsar, conscious that it can only be a rhetorical question.

Then, on a small pile of rubble, I come across a child’s school handbook, pages flapping in the breeze. The water ripped off the cover, so I don’t know whose it was. The first page has “Write and Learn, Pet Show on Friday” in the kid’s pencil scrawl. At the bottom is printed this message: “The good man does not escape all troubles, he has them too. But the Lord helps him in each and every one.”

Which naturally makes me wonder: exactly how did the Lord help the good people of Choglamsar, on the night of 5 August?

Today in Choglamsar, you see badly damaged houses on either side of a long riverbed of boulders that stretches back to the distant hills, some of the boulders nearly the size of a small car. You think: oh, so the water overflowed this riverbed and damaged the houses. But you’re wrong. What I learn for the first time from Tsering Sandrup, a young soldier on leave whom I meet there, is an order of magnitude worse. There was no riverbed before that night. There was only the cluster of houses. The water brought the boulders that simply churned through Choglamsar, obliterating the houses in their path. I mean, there is no trace of those houses. Nothing. So much so that I actually ask Tsering a stupid question: Are you sure?

He points me to one side of the damaged house, his brother’s, that he is helping to dig free of mud. “There was a verandah here,” he says, and sure enough, I can see a small section of remaining floor, tiled and patterned. He steps onto the rocks of the riverbed, about three to five metres out from the verandah remnant. “The verandah extended until here. There were other houses, many houses, beyond it.” There is no sign of this once-verandah, apart from the segment he points out, nor of the houses beyond—a sign of the power of the calamity that barrelled through Choglamsar. Besides erasing houses from the face of this mountain landscape, it killed over 100 people right here.

Tsering Sandrup’s wife, outside their home that was filled with mud by the flash flood. Note the height of the mud outside: to the level of the just-visible front door. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA

I really want to know what the Lord was doing to help the good people of this town.

VARIOUS, MORE EARTHLY ORGANISATIONS did a lot. Save the Children for one, whose relief efforts were co-ordinated by Sharif Bhat, working tirelessly through the days I met him. It was through him that I got an up-close-and-personal look at two significant challenges Ladakh faces as the flood recedes into still vivid memory.

The first: one afternoon, Sharif takes me on a recce of Phyang village, some 25 kilometres west of Leh. One thing the flood did in Phyang was destroy standing barley crops. Bad enough because barley is a staple Ladakhi grain, but it also left many fields covered with a thick layer of mud, now, after several days, hardened to nearly the consistency of concrete. Nothing grows in concrete. How will those fields be restored to their original fertility?

The second: the next day, Sharif suggests I visit one of their two ‘Child Friendly Spaces’ (CFS), part of the Himank relief camp. This camp comprises 50-odd canvas tents pitched in a large open space near an army encampment, abutting the hills short of Choglamsar. Looming on the hillside above the tents is ‘THE MOUNTAIN TAMERS’ in enormous yellow-on-black letters and ‘PROJECT HIMANK’ in as enormous red-on-white: army regimental slogans. I wander around the camp, talking to several people, conscious that an ominous cloud is about to open up overhead. But I’m even more conscious that Ladakh’s severe winter is only two months away. Where will these people be housed when the cold arrives? Everyone I speak to says they have been promised that new homes will be built before then. But two months? I cannot believe any housing project can move that fast; and if it does, I’d be astounded if the houses turn out to be at all livable.

Barley fields and housing: the basics, here in Ladakh, that nobody thinks about much from day to day. But for several hundred people, a flood has suddenly made them critical.

Sharif says Save the Children is particularly worried about the safety of kids after the floods, and that explains the CFS. At Himank, the CFS is a larger tent at the far end of the camp, where working parents can leave their kids under adult supervision. An ‘anganwadi,’ you might call it elsewhere.

Sitting with me outside the tent, 12-year-old Angmo writes in my notebook the names of the kids present today in flowing curlicue—Gigmet, Mohammed, Rigzin—then without preamble starts telling me what happened to her when the flood came. In her stream-of-consciousness pre-teen patter, she speaks of running from the water with family and neighbours, people were shouting loudly, it was neck-deep, some people stumbled as they ran, some people died, some were running naked—the other kids giggle at this and she says, sternly, “not completely naked, they were wearing underwear!”—her family took shelter in some house, but that flooded so they up and ran again. Finally, she mentions her older sister, Deachen, taking my notebook again to write the name correctly.

The water “took away” Deachen, she says, and can say nothing else about her. She does talk for a few more seconds, but I can’t understand her now because she only mutters. I see tears in her bright eyes, and suddenly Angmo gets up, runs behind the CFS and into the distance, towards the hills. I’m in Himank another hour, but I don’t see her again.

I think again, as fruitlessly, about good folk and their troubles.

LUNCH A FEW DAYS LATER is with Wangial Lakrook and Stanzin Lamo, who run the elegant Bon Appetit eatery in Leh. Sitting there chomping on their excellent chicken momos laced with peanuts, as a gentle breeze blows across the valley and the occasional bird chirps, the destruction of Choglamsar or Phyang or, in fact, Leh itself, seems very far away. But less tangible destruction has visited Bon Appetit, too. On some nights, they would get 150 people here, far more than the capacity of 92, the excess sitting on the parapets. After the flood, business is way down.

The Ladakh Scouts regiment of the Indian Army distributes relief material at the Himank tent camp for Choglamsar survivors. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA

Tourism is the mainstay of Ladakh’s economy—a near-axiom I hear from Stanzin and Wangial, an old woman selling apricots and a man selling shawls, two separate tour operators, an internet cafe owner, a taxi driver and many more. The tourist season lasts the four to five months of warmer weather, May to September. Naturally the flood has put a gaping hole in that. How much of a hole has it been at Bon Appetit? I ask Stanzin. She considers briefly. Then, quietly, she says, “I think more than 90 percent.” I’m their only lunch customer today, and last night for dinner, they had just ten. Maybe 150 was an unusually good night before, but what is it like when ten is a particularly good night?

But while they are now resigned to the blow they have suffered, these two, and others I meet, are also upset with the media for its coverage of the disaster. The destruction in Leh, Choglamsar and elsewhere was bad enough. But it’s not as if Leh was ‘flattened,’ as some reports suggested; or that there is no water to drink, minimal medical care available and epidemics on the loose, as some other reports suggested. News like that, from the few days immediately after the flood, drove tourists the world over to cancel their Ladakh plans. Chewang Motup, who runs a respected Leh adventure travel agency, expects a slowdown next year too. The issue is the advisories against travel to Ladakh that a number of countries issued after the flood. While those remain in effect, he says, travellers who want to visit Ladakh cannot get travel insurance. Therefore the larger tour companies—he mentions Kuoni, Thomas Cook and Germany’s Studiosus—are not likely to include Ladakh in their 2011 brochures, which are printed in September and October each year.

Some of this had to happen of course, and after all, several foreign hikers died in the flood, some still untraced because they were washed into the swollen Indus, or perhaps lie buried under piles of mud. News like that, not even exaggerated, is going to put fear into potential tourists. Yet Stanzil, Chewang and others also wave their hands about to underline that, apart from the intense but localised damage, Ladakh is absolutely normal. There is no shortage of drinking water. After the first day, the airport has functioned as always. Leh’s hospital was swamped with mud, but they have been able to work around this—the OPD operates out of four tents, for example—and there are plenty of hardworking doctors, as I saw for myself when I visited. Tourists face no unusual danger.

As the headline of a short essay in the Hindustan Times by hotelier Tashi Motup Kau says: “Ladakh, all is well.” And it is: look away from the damage and you’d be hard-pressed to deduce it had happened at all.

The media had to report the calamity, no doubt. You can hardly expect reporters who went to Leh to tell the story of 5 August to instead focus on all that was left untouched. But did they overdo it? Did they exacerbate the longer-term and less tangible effects of the flood—the blow to Ladakh’s economy, to Ladakhis whose income for the year comes from the five months of tourism? Fred Cuny, the thoughtful Texan disaster expert who disappeared in Chechnya in 1995, once wrote: “For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second disaster may also be looming.” He meant unthinking relief measures, but do his words apply to Ladakh today? Has the media contributed to a looming second disaster, the collapse of tourism?

Maybe it’s a thin line, but I am struck by how many people I meet in Ladakh believe it was crossed.

So what now? “If you want to help Ladakh,” Wangial tells me, “please come to Ladakh.” Makes sense to me.

MAKES SENSE, YES, BUT LATER, I am also struck by something I never expected when I travelled to Leh: how many people I meet in Ladakh speak of the flood in near-Biblical terms of payback and retribution. “This flood happened to us because of our greed,” says my taxi driver as we turn off the highway one afternoon on our way to Phey. I hear this remark repeated, in one form or another, from more people than I can now remember. Ladakhis, my driver explains, have always had a sense of community; everyone looked out for each other and nobody wanted more than the next guy. But “in the last 15-20 years”—a time estimate that, again, more people than I can now remember repeated—people have started getting greedy, wanting more money, bigger houses, cars and then fancier cars.

The flood, then, was a slap in Ladakh’s greedy face.

I have no use for theories of divine retribution. Nevertheless, there is a more mundane way to consider this language that I found I could appreciate. What a lot of people also tell me is that there are locations in Ladakh where previous generations of Ladakhis never built houses. That’s because there was a collective wisdom, gathered over the centuries, that respected the lay of the land, the way streams had been known to flow when it rained, or the presence of rocks that could break free and roll downhill to devastating effect. Cloudbursts were not unknown to Ladakhi elders. But they never caused destruction before as they did this year, simply because Ladakhis never built their homes in harm’s way.

All that has changed “in the last 15-20 years.” With the rise in tourism, there’s more money, rising aspirations, and nobody has time for the wisdom of elders. People have grown indiscriminate about where they build, no longer caring about the routes streams might take in a flash flood. Whether in Leh or Choglamsar, it’s this newer construction that was smashed to bits, precisely because it was built smack in the middle of where the water flowed. Look at the newest reaches of Leh and you can see the pattern repeated: shells of under-construction houses sprawl up the dry flank of a hill. In its way, in its shades of brown and grey, this is itself an oddly Biblical sight; and in the light of what happened elsewhere in town that 5 August night, it is a frightening vista to contemplate.

Leh residents pitch in to clean up a playground at the Lions Club that had been covered in mud. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA

AND THERE ARE HINTS in all this of some not-so-pleasant sides of tourism as well. It’s not just the rising aspirations among Ladakhis that I hear concern about. It’s also the kind of tourists—largely Indians—who are now coming to Leh, and the baggage that has arrived with them. Where earlier visitors came for the hiking and climbing, the new breed wants only to be driven everywhere; ‘jeep safaris,’ a term used with perceptible condescension by locals, are a popular way for these tourists see Ladakh.

For example, says Wangial, a well-known travel company offers a Sunday to Sunday package tour of Ladakh, something I later confirm on their website. To pack in as much as possible, the tour takes these planeloads on long drives, sorry jeep safaris, each day: 90 kilometres, 140 kilometres, with a grand finale of 280 kilometres on the last day. That’s a lot of hours on Ladakh’s bone-rattling roads. All this for 28,000 rupees including airfare (my flights alone cost me 18,000): cheaper by the planeload.

The Child Friendly Space, Himank camp, sponsored by NGO Save the Children, near Choglamsar. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA

Such tourism has meant a dramatic increase in vehicles, traffic and pollution in Ladakh; and as with package tours everywhere, such tourists have little time or inclination to savour and respect the delights of this magnificent terrain.

Maybe that explains the vista as I stand at Khardung Pass on my last day in Ladakh. I’m 5,359 metres above sea level here. I’m shivering in my completely inadequate t-shirt and jacket. I can feel the slight dizziness from the altitude with every step I take. But it is a breathtaking view in every sense: the Karakoram range in the distance, the road to the Nubra Valley wriggling down the mountainside, and a shimmering, pristine sheet of ice on the slope across a shallow valley.

Boulders cut through the area, forming Choglamsar’s new ‘riverbed.’ PHOTOGRAPHED BY DILIP D’SOUZA

But the slope at my feet, leading down to that sheet of ice? It’s a revolting, unlovely expanse of trash: bottles, boxes, Frooti tetrapacks, Lays packets, more bottles, even a loaf of bread. Looking at it, I can’t help wondering, like my new Ladakhi friends all seem to do, about the tourist who would stand here, take in the splendour that’s all around, then fling their Bisleri bottle and packed sandwiches down the mountain.

Maybe it’s the thin air. For a few moments, divine retribution suddenly seems attractive.