Srinagar/Leh, Aug. 6: A cloudburst triggered raging floods in arid Ladakh today, turning one of the countrys most picturesque regions into the face of devastation, with at least 112 dead, hundreds of homes flattened and visitors marooned during the peak adventure-tourism season.
Some 375 people were injured and thousands left homeless as a few minutes of catastrophic rain around 1.30am sent rivers of water rushing down the mountains and bursting into villages and principal town Leh.
The death toll is expected to rise with many reported missing across the worst-affected 150sqkm area around Leh, 424km east of Srinagar. Leh was almost cut off with its runway buried under slush, telecom towers damaged or uprooted and landslides blocking its two highways, to Srinagar and Manali.
The calamity has been one of the worst ever in a region known more for its wild beauty and Buddhist monasteries that draw thousands of western and Indian tourists, particularly hikers, mountaineers and adventure sports enthusiasts, with August as the peak season. Millions of others perhaps know Ladakh more as the setting for the famous last sequence in 3 Idiots.
Army spokesman Lt Col J.S. Brar said no tourist deaths had been reported but added: Many civilians, including foreign tourists, are stranded at various places.
With a large number of tourists from Calcutta in Ladakh — travel agents said around 45,000 from eastern India visit the region every year — many families in the city were on tenterhooks as they watched the horror images on TV.
Shanta Baid, 54, was beginning to fear for her daughter Reshu and son-in-law Rakesh Binayakia when the phone rang around 10am. We are safe in our hotel but possibly stuck for at least two more days. Please dont worry, Rakesh, 29, succeeded in saying before the line fell silent.
Jammu and Kashmir tourism director Farooq Ahmad confirmed that the 3,000-plus tourists now in Leh were safe. He said Leh had received more than 80,000 tourists last year and this year expected one lakh, including 35,000 foreigners.
The mainland could send little help today. The floodwaters, which swept away hundreds of mud-built houses and many government buildings, deposited a mound of mud in the airport, set downhill from Leh and level with a stream.
By the time the runway was cleared tonight, it had become too dark for relief aircraft to land in the mountainous region.
Today, troops were struggling to pull out survivors from knee-deep mud and rubble, their efforts hampered by the gushing floodwaters. The downhill civil hospital is buried under slush. Cars floated on streets that echoed with the wails of bereaved families.
Mud and water is everywhere, said tourist Kausar Makhdoomi.
Ladakh is a cold desert with a stark moonscape-like terrain, about 11,500ft (3,500m) above sea level. It normally experiences very low precipitation. Shakeel Romshoo, a geologist at Srinagars Kashmir University, said the cloudburst had created new rivulets that had cut deep channels in the mountain gorges and flooded low-lying areas. Water flow and velocity being very high, the flash floods have caused huge damage, he said.
Met officials said the cloudburst had no connection with the clouds over neighbouring Pakistan, which has suffered its worst floods in 80 years, and could not be anticipated.
Residents of Choglamsar, a major tourist attraction, described how mud and water rolled in from uphill Sabu village, some 1.5km away.
It began raining around 12.30am. After an hour, there was such a loud noise that people rushed out of their homes, said Abdul Aziz Shey.
Water started running down from Sabu. There were landslides; many were trapped in their homes. More than 200 mud-built houses were washed away. Many have died in Choglamsar, and many more are still buried there. It was as if doomsday had struck.