Further Floods in Ladakh Imminent

A workshop on Flood Disaster Risk Reduction has concluded that Ladakh will experience further floods (including mudflows) with the same or increasing frequency as in recent years. A report of the recommendations from the workshop. 

These events could be of the same or greater intensity than the 2010 floods in the capital city of Leh. In preparation for future events, the emphasis should be on reducing vulnerability, thus minimising the risk to property and human life, as well as responding to disasters when they do occur.

Participants at the workshop, organised by the Ladakh International Centre in association with the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation, urged that requires the active participation of all sections of society: political and religious leaders, government officials, the private sector, civil society, and ordinary citizens.

The scientific evidence

Historical evidence of floods, including ‘Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) and debris flows, has been found in reports by missionaries, government officers and scientists. This evidence shows that the 2010 Leh flood was not unique: there was a cluster of similar events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and again from the 1970s onwards. The climatic reason for the early cluster is uncertain, but the recent cluster has occurred at a time of rising temperature, precipitation, and rainfall intensity, along with retreating glaciers and GLOFs.

Regional Efforts 

Integrated planning

There is a clear need for specialist Disaster Risk Reduction expertise in, for example, the mapping of hazardous zones, and human exposure and vulnerability.  At the same time, it is important to integrate DRR into policy planning for every department including, for example, health, education and tourism.

DRR advisory committee

The participants recommended the setting up of a DRR advisory committee, to include non-governmental as well as governmental representatives.

Civil/military liaison

The participants called for closer civil-military liaison, specifically with regard to flood risk measures. The army plays a vital role in responding to emergencies: it should also be closely involved in the DRR.

Village level

More responsibility and resources should be devolved to the village level, using the panchayat network.

The approach should be ‘bottom-up’ as well as ‘top-down’: it is important for senior officials to tap into local knowledge, for example in researching local memory of areas that are particularly prone to floods. Equally, villagers should be encouraged to take their own initiatives, rather than simply waiting for external intervention.

Monitoring and Forecasting

We need increased and more accurate monitoring of precipitation (both snow and rainfall), Indus River flow, temperature, glacier retreat and pro-glacial lake state, and permafrost.

Monitoring data are required to determine trends, as the climate changes, in order to assess hazard risk and to test the forecasts of climate models. All efforts should be made to integrate existing data from the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), the Indian Air Force and other Indian government organizations, and to make them more widely available to researchers and policymakers.

In addition, the establishment of the sanctioned Doppler radar weather station in Leh should be expedited, and a network of Automatic Weather Stations established outside Leh.

For glacier and permafrost monitoring, a citizen science project should be established for local people to provide information, after suitable training. The Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, may be able to provide funding for additional weather stations. The Eliezer Joldan Memorial College might be able to coordinate this project.

Engineering Solutions

Concrete walls, bunds, gabions and ‘rock sausages’ are already being used in Ladakh to protect farmland, houses and infrastructure from floods. In some cases, these have not survived subsequent floods, suggesting that they may not have been well-designed or constructed, or that they can never be strong enough to resist the forces of nature.

In some cases, concrete walls have increased risks rather than reducing them. They have done this by narrowing streams so that future flood waters will be concentrated into a more confined space, and will, therefore, flow at much greater speed. One specialist compared this approach to creating a ‘shooting gallery’.

The experience from other parts of India shows that engineering solutions may create a false sense of security among people living nearby. In the worst case, this may lead them to neglect other kinds of disaster risk reduction or response. Indeed embankments do create a false sense of security.

It is therefore proposed that engineering solutions are employed only when absolutely essential. This should be done in concert with land-use planning that bans construction, or reconstruction, in hazardous zones. Such bans should be based upon reliable hazard maps which the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology is currently preparing, as well as on local knowledge.

Land use

The DRR agenda must be integrated into land use policy planning and implementation.

Enforcement of existing land-use legislation

This includes the implementation of existing land-use legislation that is designed to discourage or prevent construction in areas that are exposed to flood risk.

Understand the economic and social ‘drivers’ behind urbanisation

At the same time, it is essential to understand the economic and social factors that lead rural migrants to move to towns and to erect buildings in high-risk areas. Without this understanding, policies may fail.

Foster realistic alternatives

Leh’s new urban inhabitants will continue to take risks unless they have access to viable alternatives that secure their livelihoods.

National Efforts 

DRR is a cross-cutting issue that touches on a number of national policy priorities, for
example:
 food security
 border security
 biodiversity (Ladakh is already recognised as a biogeographical
zone of special status).

To the extent that Ladakh can link its DRR plans with these national policy agendas, it may be able to secure more privileged access to financial resources.

Rural-urban migration

The participants discussed an interlinking set of themes concerning nomad communities who have recently moved to Leh and Choglamsar, thus adding to urbanisation pressures. This pattern of migration likewise requires an integrated policy approach to provide nomads and former nomads with viable alternatives to moving to the town.

Regreening

The workshop discussed the concept of ‘regreening’: encouraging the growth of vegetation on the higher slopes of the mountains behind Leh and Phyang. In principle, such vegetation could confer many benefits, such as beautification and cooling. It might also reduce rates of infiltration and erosion, thereby also reduce debris flow hazard and flood hazard magnitudes and flashiness.

However, this idea is controversial and needs to be tested. One possibility might be to identify an experimental sub-catchment close to Leh where re-vegetation is combined with measurements of infiltration rates, groundwater, streamflow and sediment discharge, and assessments made of livelihood opportunities from re-greening (that don’t compromise potential landscape stabilisation) as the experiment progresses.

The experiment should last long enough to capture at least one extreme rainfall event. Funding may be possible through the Critical Zone Program of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, with technical advice and training from the Central Institute for Soil and Water Conservation.

Education, Awareness-raising and Memory

It is important to keep alive the memory of past disasters, both as a mark of respect for victims, and in order to ensure that the lessons learnt are not forgotten. We distinguished between two types of memory:

Institutional memory

Government institutions have a particular responsibility to ensure that flood-related expertise and local knowledge is passed on to incoming officers.

Public and personal memory

The workshop participants suggested that the local administration might explore the possibility of creating a permanent memorial to past flood victims.

The workshop discussed a number of other options for recording and promoting memories of past flooding. These included the following options:

  • Collecting and sharing oral history narratives, perhaps through an NGO such as LAMO;
  • Preparing displays in existing museums, or in an empty room in the Leh Palace, or in a new museum specifically dedicated to floods;
  • Designating a special memorial day, both to remember the past, and to publicise risk reduction and disaster response measures;
  • Other artistic initiatives, possibly including street performances, to raise awareness of the danger from floods and the need for DRR.

For further information, please contact Dr. Robert Wasson at spprjw@nus.edu.sg. John Bray from Control Risks (Singapore) contributed both to the planning of the workshop and the preparation of this report.

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