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Extreme weather events in Ladakh of August 2010

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 11, 2010

    Cloudbursts in the low altitude Himalayas are not uncommon. During my field visit to Arunachal Pradesh in 2007, I visited Gelling village in Siang District. The General Officer Commanding was very keen to host a field study on the role of the military in ecological restoration at Gelling, which was devastated by a giant mud slide on 13/14 April 2006 and where troops of the division had carried out rescue, relief and rehabilitation of the village. Gelling is the last village near the Line of Actual Control (LAC). There was no motor road, though one was being planned to be made in the near future. The road head then was at the village of Bona, which is about 20 kms north of Tuting. The march to Gelling is on a steep ascent and could take about three hours on a clear day.

    On the night of 13/14 April 2006, for the first time in living memory, Gelling village was partially washed away by a sudden cloud burst, which left deep scars in the mountain side. Fortunately there were no casualties as the school building which was in the path of fury was unoccupied. Three persons of the Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB) had a miraculous escape as their hut was saved from the fury, though huge boulders had flown down on either side with the mud slides. A similar cloud burst had also taken place over Tibet across the international border. The scars were visible from view point 2073 on the LAC. The village was relocated on a ridge nearby with the name of Narboling (new village). A 50 kw micro hydro project was being set up nearby.

    But the cloudburst in the high altitude cold desert region of Ladakh of the first week of August 2010 is not the usual but an extreme weather event. In my book Environmental Security: New Challenges and Role of Military (2010) the unresolved puzzle of change of precipitation over the years from snow to rain has been mentioned. While serving in the staff of a division in 1988-89, I recall how the unprecedented rainfall during summer had badly damaged the murals at the Basgo monastery cum fort near Nimu and the then General Officer Commanding V.R. Raghavan (now Director of Delhi Policy Group) rushed immediate engineer support to undo the damage. The relevant extracts of an appendix on the case of Ladakh from the book are reproduced at the end of this commentary.

    However, attributing cloud bursts to local tree plantation may not be entirely true. According to scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology at Pune, the August 2010 phenomenon in Ladakh is due to the impact of global warming. With higher average temperatures in high regions, monsoon winds have reached Leh. Geologists of Kashmir University have also identified human folly as a factor. Unplanned urbanization and drainage congestion leads to such disasters. The Mithi river flood of Mumbai cloudburst of 2005 or the failed engineering solution of embankments of Kosi flood of 2008 are clear examples of human abetted disasters.

    The problem in Ladakh is unique as it is a high altitude cold desert. Traditional material of sun-baked mud bricks is ecologically sound in one fundamental respect. In winter with sub zero temperatures outside, it keeps the interior warm. Over the years, cement has come to be used which freezes the interior in winter. Much more heat and energy is needed to keep it warm inside. With change in precipitation to rain, new material has to be thought of with a design that can tolerate rain and also provide the space heating that is possible with baked mud bricks. Getting the right material that is affordable is the new challenge to cater for both change in precipitation and allow natural space heating in winter.

    Some tentative conclusions are:
    (a) There have been extreme weather events in North Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir and even parts of the high altitude region of Himachal Pradesh. The need is to study this phenomenon to better understand the science of climate change as its impacts the region.

    (b) Adaptation to extreme weather events must be done in a scientific manner. Local governments, non governmental organizations and the people must be empowered with resources. Local solutions may provide best answers. Study and understanding of relationship of trees with rainfall needs immediate attention. The phenomenon could well be due to global warming and climate change. Local narratives, though anecdotal, must be merged to get a scientific picture from the bottom. Relying on computer simulation may not be enough.

    (c) Drainage congestion due to urbanisation must not be allowed to happen. Infrastructure building must be given priority to build resilience. The design and material of building should be such so as to cater for expected rain in future. Scientists, architects and construction engineers in India must rise to the occasion to suggest the most cost effective architecture.

    (d) The region’s political economy is based on tourism. Ladakh is also the soul and heart of Mahayana Buddhism of the Himalayan belt. Tourism must be encouraged and facilitated by improvisation before winter sets in as livelihood of locals is involved. The spirit of Ladakhis must not be underestimated. The national media must give it regular attention and coverage. The entire nation must rise to the occasion to face this challenge.

    (e) The rehabilitation and relief must also involve the army. A new Operation Sadbhavana model needs to be put in place. The army should help rebuild using traditional ecological knowledge. The Border Roads Organisation similarly may relook at bridges and culverts for a complete overhaul. If the working season is less due to onset of autumn and winter, two or three or even longer plans must be made. Foot and pack mobility of the military must be re-emphasized.

    (f) What is “security” should no more be in doubt. The concept of Security has broadened to include threats other than foreign militaries invading a country. Human and cultural security needs to be topmost priority. Rather, disaster management should be termed a traditional security issue and military threats as non-traditional.

    (g) India should initiate dialogue with China over its design of construction of dams on the Indus and point out the chances of dam bursts in future due to similar events in Tibet. Storage is risky and run of river projects may be safer.


    A piece “Indian Army and Green Governance: Action Plan for Ladakh”, in Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Green Governance web site accessed in August 2005 concludes that “The delicate ecological balance should not be disturbed due to over enthusiasm and over insurance. Indiscriminate aforestation would also impact the cold desert ecosystems. Already, many apprehensions have been raised about the impact of aforestation and one of the perceived effects is the increase in rainfall in the last few years.”

    The opinion of the Director BNHS was:

    “This issue was brought to my notice by many people when I visited Ladakh in June 2005, but I am not very sure whether there is direct relationship between better tree cover and more rainfall. More rains, if this is true, could be due to climate change or decadal cycle in precipitation. This needs to be studied. Lots of people think that more trees bring more rain but rainfall is determined by many factors on a much larger scale. I am not a climatologist so I can not write more than this. We need more studies to know the impact of increase tree plantation on the weather of Ladakh.”

    Views of General Officer Commanding of Kargil region in March 2006 were as under:-
    (a) Percentage of green cover in the region about 0.1%
    (b) There are five massive ranges in the Ladakh region. It is not possible to plant trees on those heights.
    (c) Trees and the like provide building material; fuel, herbs, medicinal plants are being planted.
    (d) DRDO at Leh conducts training of military personnel charged with this task.
    (e) In the past the forest department of Jammu and Kashmir used to give about Rs 4 per plant as incentive for forestation.
    (f) Tree plantation has a very high socio-economic advantage.
    (g) It is unlikely that rain pattern has changed due to this reason.

    A book Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh: Ladakh (2004), authored by a J and K cadre bureaucrat Parvez Dewan also refers to this phenomenon thus:

    After the 1960s the government went in for a massive plantation of trees. By the mid- 1970s Ladakh’s climate had begun to change. This cold desert had never known floods before, but in 1977, just one inch of rainfall caused a flood of sorts. The little snow that the plains of Leh receive is dry and flaky. But in autumn (not winter) of 1998 parts of Leh received snow that was at the same time wet, plentiful (almost a foot) and unusually early. This snow damaged many buildings, notably the Spituk monastery.

    The author in a footnote to the above passage further explains:

    The enormous increase in the number of trees since 1960s is a fact. So is the change in the climate. And yet there might be no common connection between the two. According to one school of thought, the climate begins to change only after 30% of an area has been covered with trees. Neither Leh nor Kargil is anywhere near that figure. The change in climate in both districts could possibly be part of the overall change that has taken place in the Indian Himalayas and parts of central Asia, especially since 1998.