With the death toll in the flash flood in Ladakh up to 150 (and 500 people missing), and hundreds of houses destroyed, the magnitude of the havoc wrought by the natural calamity cannot be underestimated. The floods affected Leh town and the surrounding villages, the main population centres of this thinly peopled district and also the focus of much of its economic activity. It is going to take many months for that remote corner of India to return to normal. The immediate priority is to ensure that survivors are rescued and taken to safety and provided medical care, and that all affected people have access to relief. The Army and the Air Force have already been deployed for rescue operations, to which the continuing bad weather poses a challenge. Moreover, sections of all roads leading to the ravaged area have been washed away. This means the only way to reach Leh now is by the air-link, itself dependent on the weather conditions. But all this only gives the task of rescue and relief an added urgency. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's early visit to Leh, just hours after the calamity struck, has sent out a positive signal. It is to be hoped that his government, despite its preoccupation with the turmoil in the Valley, will not be found wanting in its response to the crisis in the days to come. The Centre must provide the Jammu & Kashmir government all the assistance it needs to cope with this emergency.

The devastating floods were caused by a cloudburst over Leh that lasted less than two hours. A cloudburst is high intensity rainfall in a short period of time, sometimes accompanied by hail and thunder, and can cause floods. A cloudburst over Mumbai in July 2005 saw the skies dumping 950 mm of water in eight to 10 hours, paralysing the city and claiming several lives. The exact measurement of rain that fell during the reported one-hour cloudburst over Leh on August 6 is still not available. While the rain on the two days may not come anywhere close to what Mumbai saw, for Ladakh it is a huge amount. This is what puzzles meteorologists. It never really rains in Ladakh, which is geographically categorised as a “cold desert.” The destruction in the floods was all the more because people in Ladakh, confident of dry conditions, have traditionally used mud in much of their architecture. The Leh disaster has come at the same time as Pakistan experiences its worst floods in a century. Across South Asia, weather patterns are changing in unpredictable ways, and require to be studied so that we are better equipped to deal with them.

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