Srinagar, May 7: A massive artificial lake formed after a landslide blocked a tributary of the Zanskar river burst early today, prompting hundreds of terrified residents in Ladakh to flee their homes and raising questions over army claims of clearing the blockage through controlled blasts last month.
Officials said water from the lake swamped farmland and washed away bridges and other infrastructure but no casualties were reported.
"Eight suspension bridges, three motorable bridges, a school, agricultural land and plantation on the banks of the river have been washed away.... People are very scared and many villagers have shifted to safer areas," Tsering Angdus, the Kargil Autonomous Hill Council's executive councillor for the Zanskar area, told The Telegraph . "It will take us some time to assess the exact loss."
The 15km-long lake was formed in January after a landslide blocked the Phuktal, a tributary of the Zanskar, at an altitude of 13,000ft, around 100km east of Padam, the headquarters of the Zanskar region in Kargil. The authorities had to close the famed 150km Chadar trek, a hauntingly beautiful journey on the icy surface of the frozen Zanskar, for the safety of trekkers and civilians.
The development was declared a national crisis by the central government, prompting it to launch a five-week-long operation involving the army, the National Disaster Management Authority, the air force and the state administration.
The forces claimed a breakthrough last month, saying a 75-metre-long and 2-metre-deep channel had been created through controlled blasts so that the water could flow downstream.
The entire operation was maintained by air as the area is inaccessible by road. The army said men, material and machinery were ferried in 500 sorties over 300 hours under extremely hazardous and demanding flying conditions.
But many in Ladakh today questioned the army's claims. "We were sitting complacent after the assurances.... But I think local workers would have done a far better job and such destruction would have been avoided," Angdus said.
No army sources were available for comment.
Kargil council CEO Mohammad Haneefa Jan said the lake burst after the thick sheet of ice, formed on its surface in sub-zero temperatures in winter, started melting. "(Luckily) there are no reports of any casualties so far.... We are monitoring the situation."
Another official said the blockage had led to the accumulation of 30 million cubic metres of water. Some of the water was drained out over the past month through the channel dug by the army.
"We had apprehensions that once the temperatures start rising, the ice sheet would melt," he said. "But they (the army and disaster response force personnel) had assured us all was well."
Zanskar, which spreads across 7,000sqkm, can be reached by a 450km road from Leh via Kargil. But it remains cut off from the outside world for several months in winter because of heavy snowfall in and around the Panzila Pass, which connects it with Kargil.
The Chadar trek over the frozen Zanskar then becomes the only way local people can reach Leh.