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Helping flood-affected communities in Ladakh

I arrived in Leh, the largest town in the Ladkh region,  India,  six weeks after the flash floods swept away homes, schools and took scores of lives on August 6, 2010. 

Villagers had fled their homes during the night to reach safer ground on top of the mountains. There, they spent many days camping in the bitter cold. As soon as the waters receded, people returned to their homes. Although most villages were still submerged by mud and sand, families pitched up tents alongside the chaos and began to rebuild their homes.

I visited the family home of Mr Tahwang Phnssoy (53), Mrs Sonam Dolma (49) and their five children who had been badly affected by the flooding. Fodder and grain had been totally washed away, and a little shop they ran was destroyed, along with 80,000 rupee’s worth of stock.

But in the last few weeks the house had been made habitable, and they were thankful for the ECHO project cash-for-work activties and shelter kits which had made this possible.  Since then the family had cleared a layer of mud three feet deep that had covered the floor. They served me yak tea and I sat and chatted with them for a while in a cosy, clean kitchen.

“We have been able to move back into our house after only a few days – we didn’t think this would be possible,” said Mr Tahwang, expressing his thanks to both Save the Children and ECHO. “We have received thermals, a stove and the tools to clear our house of mud.”After winter they plan to build their house on top of the mountain, so if the flood comes again they will be safe.”

When I asked about the farmland his tone became more serious. “It isn’t just grain and fodder which we have lost. Our grandfathers spent their whole lives trying to reclaim this land, yet in two hours that work means nothing; all of the poplar trees are gone — these take up to 20 years to grow. In this flood, everything was swept away and it will take us 30 to 40 years to have fertile land again — it takes a long time, a generation. People depend on agriculture here. Yes, there are some government employees, and many young people are in the army and in tourism, but farming is the main industry here.”

What has struck me most whilst working in Ladakh — besides the sheer beauty of the place and the sincere, honest, kind courageous people — is the huge variety of ways an emergency such as this affects a community and the importance of an integrated response. It was news to me that responses can include immediate relief, child protection, ensuring access to education, diversifying livelihood options, promoting wider economic recovery and reducing the risk of further conflict or crisis.

It was difficult to reconcile the destruction outside with the jovial atmosphere inside the temporary schools and tents  set up so children can play safely with their friends.  But it’s clear to me that children’s attitudes and mental states have improved remarkably within the last few weeks. Teachers have repeatedly remarked to me that temporary schools, education and school kits and child friendly spaces have contributed hugely to the process of children regaining a sense of normality, after such traumatic experiences.

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