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Reduced to rubble

Call it nature's fury, the wrath of gods or the effect of climate change, the cloudburst in Leh will have a long-term impact on the relationship between man and nature. P. Stobdan writes.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2010 21:57 IST
P. Stobdan
P. Stobdan
Hindustan Times

Call it nature's fury, the wrath of gods or the effect of climate change, the cloudburst in Leh will have a long-term impact on the relationship between man and nature.

But what lessons can be drawn from the tragedy? It's clearly a case of nature's refusal to get overly humanised. Ladakh has witnessed colossal man-induced changes and breakdown of Ladakhi traditional institutions since the 1950s. The modernisation process and infrastructure-building since 1962 have come in conflict with nature. Leh town seems to have grown by leaps and bounds and is unable to accommodate migration from outside.

Clearly, there has been no proper town planning and reckless urbanisation has meant construction of houses in suburban, barren lands prone to mudslides. A case in point is the Army's HQ 14 Corps that was built in the mudslide zone. The net result has been a rise in the carbon dioxide levels. High variation and frequent inversion of temperature have led to increased precipitation.

Ironically, decades of the Defence Research and Development Organisation's campaign for widespread tree plantation and green fields has had an adverse affect. It has led to a rise in the warm currents responsible for cumulonimbus cloud formation. This has proved that afforestation can be as dangerous as deforestation for a semi-arid ecosystem like Ladakh's.

As a result, rise of convectional precipitation has meant doing away with the traditional architecture of mud walls and thatched roofs. They have been replaced with concrete structures, which, in turn, have a domino effect on both man and the nature.

The recent devastation has also exposed the lack of preparedness of the government to deal with natural disasters. The magnitude of devastation was serious enough, but the hype at the national level created by the media did nothing to help the relief work on the ground. Despite the authorities' loud claim of relief operations, no work was seen on the ground for days.

What about the National Disaster Management Agency that claimed to have taken several steps towards a disaster prevention strategy, early warning system, disaster mitigation, preparedness and response even at the district level? Leh badly missed the Special Service Bureau's help that has traditionally aided in the mitigation of non-traditional threats to security.

Geologists are speculating on a large-scale earthquake along the Himalayan faultline that can also pose a serious national security risk. With the region's infrastructure badly crippled, the government needs to do some fresh thinking about putting in place an institutional mechanism to save the Himalayas. Doppler radars could help predict cloudbursts. But, most important, man has to learn to adjust with nature and the government has to be serious about town planning.

P. Stobdan is a Ladakh-based professor. The views expressed by the author are personal.