Leh Flash Floods Recovery

The need
On August 5th, 2010, the picturesque landscape of Leh Ladakh was dramatically transformed. As the clouds burst, flash floods swept the region. It wreaked widespread damage to Leh, the region’s main city, as well as the surrounding areas. Buildings, homes, power and telephone lines collapsed, vehicles were washed away and many people were trapped under the debris. The situation was dire with recovery efforts hampered by the remote location, altitude and harsh climactic conditions.

How we helped
Phase 1 – Designing for extreme climate
It was a race against time to reconstruct locally appropriate houses before winter set in. A shelter strategy was developed that kept traditions in mind. These were complemented with risk reduction, thermal comfort and eco-friendly features considering Leh’s climate conditions and its high earthquake vulnerability. However, while a traditional Ladakhi house usually consists of at least three to four rooms, only a core shelter – one room and toilet – were suggested due to the time constraints.

The houses were constructed from stabilised compressed earth blocks – a mix of the local soil stabilised with seven percent of cement. 62,000 earth blocks were produced in just one month at the local rural building centre.

14 homes were able to be completed by mid-November. These were families who had no means to reconstruct houses on their own. Additionally, Bukharis (traditional heating equipment) and fuel for these heaters were provided to 24 families as part of the winter support. Rebuilding was forced to stop at this point due to the extreme weather conditions. Temperatures dipping to -200 C made working with cement and water impossible.

Phase 2 – Rebuilding more homes
Work resumed in the spring to rebuild homes in even more remote locations. This time the approach was an owner-driven one. The onus for gathering masons and materials was given to the families and SEEDS took on a greater facilitation role.

There was also an experiment with materials and design. Bugoo (local mud blocks) became the first choice, with tweaks to add resistance and strength. In Tia, where transport of other materials was extremely tough, homes were done in stone masonry.

The design itself copied an element from traditional monastery architecture, using buttresses and corner reinforcements as opposed to lintel bands. This reduced the amounts of cement and steel required, decreasing costs and increasing feasibility for these remote locations.

21 houses were constructed overall in this phase and the response was extremely positive.

At the same time, long-term resilience efforts were bolstered through school safety programmes across 10 schools in flood-prone villages.

Phase 3 – Getting back Community Centres
In the third phase of the intervention, the focus shifted to community centres. In this region, they are a very important gathering point even in normal times; and act a hub during emergencies. They are an integral part of holistic village planning.

Two areas – Igoo and Sakti – were identified on the basis of their flood paths and accessibility in case of an evacuation. Each community centre demonstrates a traditional Ladakhi building technique; using only locally available natural resources.

In Sakti, situated between two mountain valleys, the timber-framed and stone-based community centre caters to around 50 households.

The Igoo centre revived traditional rammed earth techniques to increase thermal comfort and structural strength. It caters to around 45 families incorporating a women and child-centric approach, with spaces for weaving and handicraft activities and an open space for children to play. Both centres includes a hall and toilet blocks to ensure that it can be used emergency centre.

Leaving a mark
The initiative was about more than 35 homes, 2 community centres and school safety work across 10 schools. It was about the sense of hope that the community held on to despite the extreme challenges. It was this spirit that inspired us, leading to win the CNN-IBN Indian of the year award 2010 for Public Service and the Drukpa Award 2011.

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