December 03, 2010

Through a flood, hope

The November 2010 issue of the magazine TerraGreen carries the last of my writing on visiting Ladakh after the flood disaster there in August. This is a longer essay that was their cover story. Appended below. Any comments welcome.


Through a Flood, Hope
Voices from Ladakh, August 2010

Colonel Anil Beniwal of the Ladakh Scouts rises from behind his desk as I enter his room, and comes around to shake my hand. For no sensible reason, I'm always primed to be a little stiff when I meet people from the Army, thinking I need to be that way to match their ethos of structure and hierarchy. But Col Beniwal doesn't fit that naive notion. A tall, almost slender man with an easy smile, his manner puts me immediately at ease.

On the back wall is a large red banner commemorating the Scouts' valour during the Kargil war. On either side of it is a green Ladakh Scouts banner with an ibex in the middle. A large trophy sits below the right green banner, won in some sports event in 1999. Various other insignia and mementos are everywhere, and facing me on Col Beniwal's desk is a smart little sign saying "Please be Seated".

His men are deferential and obedient, as Army men always are with ranks higher than them. But when Col Beniwal begins telling me what happened to a few of his men a couple of weeks earlier, when the flood came down from the Ladakh hills, I get a sense of the bonds there are between these soldiers.

The Ladakh Scouts Regimental Centre, where I met Col Beniwal, sprawls over a gentle slope above a stream, Phyang Nallah, surrounded by some of Ladakh's majestic but barren mountains. The main road to the Centre branches off from the Srinagar-Leh highway, some 15 km west of Leh, at a point where a bridge on the highway crosses the same stream. At that fork in the road, there was a splendid yellow Tibetan-style arch to welcome visitors to the Centre, and a small concrete cabin to house the men on duty there. This post was called RP Gate.

The night of the flood, Col Beniwal tells me, seven of his "boys" were stationed at RP Gate. As was normally the case, three were outside actually on duty, and the other four were in the cabin, sleeping until their duty hours came around. Somewhere past midnight, a burst of intense heavy rain turned Phyang Nallah into a monster. Water in unimaginable amounts roared from the hills behind the centre, bringing mud and rocks and uprooted trees. When it reached the guardpost, Col Beniwal says, it "swept away our boys."

He says it phlegmatically, and I know well how Army officers often refer to their men as "boys". Yet something about the way this Colonel says that phrase grabs me. There's a hint in that "our boys" of what he must have felt, when he heard the tragic news.

The flood tore down the welcome arch, depositing its yellow top about 30 metres away and leaving hardly a trace of the rest. It washed away the bridge across the highway, effectively cutting Leh off from Srinagar. Seen from across the stream, the road looks like the bitten-off edge of a biscuit. The river inundated the cabin with several feet of mud. The four Ladakh Scouts who were sleeping inside were suddenly overwhelmed with water and mud; when they got up from their beds, it was quickly up to their shoulders. Only when the rain abated were they able to make their way to the Centre and report what had happened. Their three colleagues on duty outside had no chance. The water took Col Beniwal's "boys" as it took rocks and trees, washing them downstream and probably into the swollen Indus.

Over the next two weeks, the Ladakh Scouts carried out a massive search for their missing "boys", involving dogs, a helicopter and hundreds of men. A day after the tragedy, they found Naik Padma Dorje's dead body. They never did find the other two.

The nearby village of Phyang also suffered in the flood. While mourning their own losses, the Ladakh Scouts also reached out to the villagers there. The same night, said a report they later prepared, they "rescued a 12 year-old girl who was badly injured and had suffered head injuries". They also took nine other injured villagers to an Army hospital, besides providing first aid to many more victims. Over the next several days, they distributed food and water to about two thousand people, as well as relief material like tents and sleeping bags.

I learn much of all this in Col Beniwal's office. It is my first full day in Ladakh, and this is my first close look at what happened here when the flood came. So I'm paying close attention to Col Beniwal, looking at the photographs he shows me on a large screen, taking plenty of notes.

Through it all, though, I can't stop thinking about the way Col Beniwal refers to the men he lost as his "boys".


The next day I visit Choglamsar, a neighbourhood of closely-packed houses about 5 km east of Leh. I should really say "once-closely-packed". For when I walk through the area now, it consists of a several badly damaged houses, some with mud piled high inside, and a rocky almost-dry river-bed running between them, stretching back several kilometres to the distant hills. Some of the rocks are half the size of cars. There are also piles of rubble, smashed cars, books, broken TVs and several miserable-looking dogs picking their way about. There are almost no people.

What I know about Choglamsar is that nearly 150 of its residents died, swept away by the water. I'm trying to imagine the scene that night, trying to reconstruct it from the desolation I see around me. What I think must have happened is that the river overflowed out of its bed and smashed houses on either side. Broadly, that's true. But there's an important detail that I cannot guess by looking at Choglamsar today, that I learn from Tsering Sandrup, a soldier on leave who is digging mud out of a house nearby. It's his brother's home, I find out, and Tsering is helping him retrieve what they can out of it.

He explains to me that before August 5th, there was no river-bed running down the middle of Choglamsar. There were just houses, plenty of them, and yes, they were indeed closely-packed throughout this area. What happened was that the flash flood came barreling out of the hills and smashed straight into Choglamsar, tearing a path through the houses. In other words, where there are now only rocks in what I see as the river-bed, there used to be houses, and the flood simply obliterated those houses. I mean, there is absolutely no sign of any of those structures now. Nothing.

To make himself clear, Tsering points to a small remnant of a verandah of his brother's house. "It used to be much larger", he says, and steps about 10-15 feet into the "river-bed" to show me how far the verandah used to extend. "And there were other houses just beyond. All gone."

I try hard to imagine the power unleashed here that night, the power in a wall of water that carries enormous rocks and quantities of mud and tears a path through a town. It's a job that's been done so completely, so thoroughly, that I actually ask Tsering: "Are you sure?"

He nods his head. He is sure.

Tsering is only one of many Ladakhis who tell me a story about ancient wisdom. It goes like this. Earlier, meaning until a generation or so ago, Ladakhis knew not to build anything in certain areas. This was because their elders used to pass on the knowledge that was handed down to them by their parents, going back into history: that these places were known to be vulnerable to flooding, being in the path that water would take as it flowed from the hills. Flash floods were not unknown in Ladakh, but they rarely caused the kind of destruction that happened this year, because there was little to destroy.

But with more money and rising aspirations in more recent times -- the story continues -- people have given up listening to their elders. They now build indiscriminately, wherever there is empty land. Case in point: Choglamsar. Had I come here 25 years ago, says Tsering, I would have found nothing here. Because while it's true that there really wasn't a river running through this space, it was nevertheless known as a place where water would flow, if there was a flood. So nobody built anything here. Until 25 years ago, when people started doing so, started disregarding the warnings of old.

The result is the calamity of August 5th.

Tsering is also one of many Ladakhis who portray this story in almost cosmic terms. "We got greedy," he says, "and we were punished for that." For me, this cuts a little too close to divine retribution, which doesn't do much for me. But I do understand it in this sense: there was earlier wisdom that people paid attention to, they stopped doing so at some point, and now there's massive destruction where there need not have been much at all.

As I absorb all this, as Tsering and I talk quietly, it turns steadily darker. There are ominous clouds to the west, over Leh, and they are moving swiftly towards where we stand. A few minutes later, heavy drops begin to fall on us. It turns out to be just a passing shower. But Tsering gives me perspective on it when he looks up and says, seconds before the rain: "Baarish ke naam se bahut dar hai." ("We are frightened of even the mention of rain.")


Most of the residents of Choglamsar, driven from their homes by the flood, are housed temporarily in two tent camps. One is on a broad empty space next to the hills, on grounds belonging to an Army encampment. There are over 50 tents here, and immediately above them, in huge letters on the slope, are these two signs: "THE MOUNTAIN TAMERS" and "PROJECT HIMANK". These are Army regimental inscriptions, and this is why this particular tent camp is known to all as the Himank camp.

It is mid-morning when I walk in. Not too many people about. There are three low tables, small heaps of rotting cabbage and peas on them. Nearby are several sacks of onions and bhendi hidden under a tarpaulin, with two boys jumping about on the pile. To my left, a large Army truck pulls up and several jawans emerge. They are from the Ladakh Scouts, and they have brought some relief material for the camp. About a dozen people emerge from the tents and walk over to the truck. The jawans distribute to them bottles of orange marmalade and mixed fruit jam, bags of atta and salt, and boxes of Indoserve tea complete with detailed instructions on the side about "How to Make a Perfect Cup of Tea". They also have a few blankets and sleeping bags. Not enough of those to give everyone, so they ask each person who asks for one, "Do you really need it?" One man, wearing a "UW Lacrosse" sweatshirt and cap, thinks about it and says "No". He walks back to his tent carrying tea and marmalade.

Standing outside her tent a few metres away and watching all this is a young woman in a blue t-shirt. She is Jigmat Yangchan, 22 years old. She is studying Arts at a college in Leh and taking computer classes in the evenings. She tells me she is actually from a village called Koyul, quite far away. When she was admitted to college last year, she came to stay with an aunt in Choglamsar. Then catastrophe reached out to touch her.

That night, Jigmat had gone to visit a cousin, and decided to spend the night there. This is why, she tells me, she is alive today. The aunt, Padma, and her 20 year-old daughter Rigzen were sleeping in their home when the water came, carrying rocks and destruction. Their roof fell on them. Rigzen must have died almost immediately, but Padma was alive till the morning. Somebody took her to the hospital in Leh, but by the time they reached the petrol pump 200 metres short of the hospital where the road from Choglamsar comes into town, Padma was also dead.

Jigmat had to identify their bodies. Padma was recognizable, she says, but Rigzen -- Jigmat pauses, collects herself, sighs once and says "Her whole face was changed." It was only from Rigzen's bracelet, shirt and an old burn mark on her elbow that Jigmat could identify her.

There was more tragedy to come. Later that day, Jigmat heard the news of another aunt, Sangdub. That family was also asleep in their house when the water came. Sangdub, her husband and one of their two children were wounded badly, but survived. The other child, a 13 year-old, was swept away and was never found.

Jigmat is astonishingly composed as she tells me all this. I mean, how would I have reacted if I was asked to identify a close young cousin whose face was mutilated in death? Jigmat is matter-of-fact about it, except for that noticeable pause before she told me about Rigzen's face. Is she calm because it has been two weeks since it happened? Is it the enormity of her loss that she is still coming to terms with? Is it the sheer scale of destruction in Choglamsar, so that nearly everyone in the Himank camp is touched in one way or another and perhaps that makes it easier to cope?

I don't know.


After the immediate work of relief was done, people in Ladakh started to look at the longer-term concerns, one of which is housing. When I am in Ladakh, the fierce winter is only weeks in the future. What would all these people who were driven out of Choglamsar into tents do then? Surely they cannot remain in tents?

Jigmat has been thinking about this. Some "big people", she tells me without being clear on exactly who they are, have promised the Himank camp residents that they will get new homes in two months. According to her, they were offered two choices for where these houses will be built. The first is a sloping plateau, typical of Ladakh, that she points to -- due east of where we stand. The second is an area called Kharnaklink, behind a hill she also points to, near the Mahabodhi school there.

"The final site hasn't been chosen," she says.

And who will make the choice, and when?

Jigmat shrugs. "Big people", she says again. "Big big people. Not us small people."

Yet why should it not be small people who decide?

I sincerely hope those homes are indeed built in two months, for all these people must be gone from the tents when the weather turns cold. Yet I cannot shake the profound pessimism I feel about this. I know of no housing project anywhere in this country, at any time, in which a few hundred houses were built that quickly. And yet that's exactly what they'll have to at least try to accomplish in Ladakh.

One morning, I stop at the office of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) to meet their Director, Mohammad Hasnain. As early as August 16, ten days after the flood, LEDeG had begun focusing on the issue of housing. "We are now trying to gear up to the real challenge of reconstructing houses," said an email appeal I received from them that day, "for those whose houses have been entirely washed away, before the onset of the harsh winters in two months (that is the biggest concern and need from all groups at the moment)."

Hasnain underlines this urgency when we speak. But he says LEDeG is also firmly opposed to the suggestion other NGOs have made, that pre-fabricated units be brought in and erected in large numbers. This would be a waste of resources, as prefab housing is very expensive and will not last beyond the first winter. It also does not fit the cultural and ecological context in Ladakh.

What LEDeG is pushing for, Hasnain says, is to build "one room sets", called "core shelters", and hand those over to those who need them. These will be energy-efficient (using solar energy extensively), disaster-resistant units that are built from local materials. "These one room sets," I read in a later appeal from LEDeG, "would see [their owners] through this winter and then they could add on more rooms in the future as and when they could."

There is much more, and LEDeG has a "Shelter Strategy" document that spells it out in detail. Admittedly I remain pessimistic that enough of even these core shelters will be built by the time winter arrives. But it's gratifying to know that at least some people are putting thought into the issue of housing, to understand that they treat this calamity as an opportunity to build in better ways than has been done in the past. (Maybe they will pay attention again to the wisdom of older Ladakhis, about the path of floods). And Hasnain says the feeling of community is strong here in Ladakh. If there are people without a house for the winter, they can count on relatives and friends to take them in.


Another longer-term concern is over tourism. Tourism is the backbone of Ladakh's economy, a living for everyone from taxi-drivers to guest-house owners to the old women who sell apricots and cauliflowers in Leh's market area. But it's a living that must be made in the five or six warmer months, about May to October. The harsh winter keeps tourists away for the rest of the year.

But this year, the flood happened in early August, just about halfway through the tourist season. Starting on August 6, tourists in Ladakh began going home, and others who had planned to come to Ladakh cancelled their plans. Overnight, the tourist bonanza dried up.

This is not immediately apparent to someone new to Ladakh, like me. There are still plenty of tourists, plenty of traffic in Leh. Yet from all I hear, this is just a pale imitation of what it would have been like had there been no flood.

Stanzin Lamo is one of the partners of an elegant eatery, Bon Appetit. At lunch there two days in a row, I'm the only customer, and this is a place with a capacity for 92 people. She tells me that on good nights before the flood, they have had as many as 150, the excess sitting on the parapet in the open as they waited for a table. Now they are lucky if they get 10 for dinner. There's a sign of what has happened to tourism in Ladakh, that drop from 150 to 10.

Did it have to be this way? Plenty of Ladakhis wonder.

The damage the flood caused, fierce though it was, happened in very limited areas: Choglamsar, one part of Leh, and several smaller villages. The rest of Ladakh was untouched. In fact, this is an almost surreal disconnect, and especially so in Leh. The whole lower section of Leh, going out to the airport, looks like a war zone. The water poured from the hills and through that section, destroying building after building on either side of the road. Yet you walk above that section, and its immediately as if nothing had happened. Upper Leh is green and completely intact, completely normal.

Why then, people ask me, did journalists file reports saying Leh had been "flattened", that there was no drinking water available, that there were epidemics breaking out? "The truth was bad enough", says Stanzin, "so why exaggerate it?"

The result, of course, is the steep fall in tourism. Several Western countries issued travel advisories cautioning people against travel to Leh. As Chewang Montup, proprietor of a respected adventure travel company, tells me, this means travel agencies in those countries will likely excise Ladakh from their 2011 brochures. So tourist numbers will be lower next year too, unwittingly carrying forward the impact of the flood.

In some ways, this is a looming second disaster. Or, depending on how you look at it, the second disaster has already visited Ladakh, in the huge tourism slowdown this year. Next year will just deepen that. Whatever it is, plenty of Ladakhis blame the media for it. "The media played a negative role," says Montup, "because really, most of Ladakh is not affected."

And yet, a journalist who comes to Ladakh to report on the flood is hardly likely to focus on places that were "not affected", areas that have remained untouched. The immediate story is destruction and death, and naturally that will dominate any coverage of the disaster, at least in the first few days. Perhaps the coverage will end up exaggerating the scale of the disaster for people outside Ladakh. But maybe that's the way it goes. Or is it?


Catalin Constantin Morariu came to Ladakh from Romania. He was an accomplished mountaineer who had climbed Shisha-Pangma, the 14th-tallest peak in the world. With his Danish girlfriend Henrietta, he travelled to the village of Sku to go hiking in the spectacular Ladakh wilderness.

On August 5th, they erected their tents and went for a hike with two other Romanian couples. The rains came, then the flood, and they were caught in it. The other two couples managed to cling to some rocks and saved themselves that way. Catalin was seen holding on to a tree for a while, but then Henrietta and he were swept away. The friends found Henrietta's dead body when the flood receded, and managed to take her to a monastery nearby. Eventually they took her home to Denmark.

Catalin? Unfortunately, they could not find him.

There must have been several sad stories like this about missing hikers. I know this much about Catalin because one of the other guests where I was staying in Leh was a German woman who works with disabled children in Ladakh and maintains a website about her efforts. Someone from Catalin's family in Romania, frantic for some news, any news, about him, stumbled on her website and wrote her a note asking if she could help track him down.

We found no mention of him at either the hospital or the morgue. But then Chewang Montup, the adventure travel expert, mentioned that a few European embassies had got in touch with him for help in finding their citizens who had vanished in Ladakh. One such, a Frenchwoman, took them 7 days of searching. The police, unable to identify her body, had buried her in the village where she was found. By boat and raft and then by truck, Chewang's team brought her out from her hilly grave.

Anyone from Romania that you found like that, I ask, and quickly tell him what I know about Catalin.

"No," says Chewang. "But now that you mention it, I've heard of a body that was found near Sku after the flood, a Romanian man. Tall and well-built. Nobody could identify him, so they buried him there."

Unfortunately, this conversation happens on my last day in Ladakh. While I would have liked to, I cannot participate in any effort to retrieve this body. Though when I returned to Bombay, I did pass on to Catalin's family in Romania this small nugget of information that's possibly about him.

Over two weeks later, and thus nearly six weeks after the calamity in Ladakh, Catalin's cousin wrote to me from Romania. "The family decided to bring home the body which supposedly belongs to Catalin", she wrote. But clearly under the impression I was still in Ladakh, she went on: "In this area [of Sku] there could be a person with amnesia. Maybe you can find out [if] such a person has been found in that area."

I never knew this young climber. But I was unaccountably saddened by his death, then by this note from his cousin. Hope, it always springs eternal.

1 comment:

Becky said...

Good essay. This is the most sensible essay I've seen by a journalist about the floods in Ladakh. Very good and accurate point, that only a few parts of Leh were devastated and the rest fine, and that the rumours of epidemics and stuff were false.
You'll be happy to know that things have recovered and life has returned to normal to a huge degree. Many displaced families have moved into their relief houses houses and the total amount of relief that came into Ladakh was huge, plenty.