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War Against Natural Disasters: A Fight the Indian Military Can’t Win

glaciers in ladakh
Melting glaciers can cause dangerous outburst floods and landslides. Photo: Poonam Agarwal via Flickr CC

By Sabrina Ho Yen Yin for Glacierhub

A sensitive Himalayan ecosystem and community vulnerable to threats—both natural and human-caused—lies along the Indian border region of Ladakh, bordered by Pakistan and China. For one, ongoing military tensions necessitate a permanent presence of the Indian army in the region. Ladakh is also badgered by natural disasters, with local inhabitants affected each year by floods and landslides, especially during the spring and summer months when snow and glaciers melt. Despite the region’s exposure to these natural hazards, national security remains the top priority, with the region relying on military-led disaster governance. A recent study reveals that disaster risk reduction is often slow or even absent in Ladakh due to its ongoing status as a conflict and military-tense zone.

GlacierHub spoke to the lead author of the paper, Jessica Field, from the Jindal School of International Affairs in Jagdishpur, India, about disaster governance in Ladakh. In the current era of climate change, the region’s glaciers are retreating, causing floods and threatening livelihoods. Field commented that the issue of flooding is well-recognized in the region and that there have been various efforts over the years to limit the impacts of natural disasters.

“Perhaps the most famous are those of the Ice Stupa project by engineer Sonam Wangchuk and the artificial glacier work of Chewang Norphel, which have been designed primarily to meet the water needs of the region,” she said. ”But engineers are also working on them to prevent flood risk from overflow.”

“There must be a shift from a reactive approach to a more proactive approach.”

The effectiveness of such local initiatives is often limited, because they are solo projects spearheaded by individuals without sustained financial and institutional support. In addition, they tend to be pioneered as solutions to water shortage, for example, rather than solutions to disaster risk. As such, these developments do not regularly feature in the discussions or plans focused on disaster risk, which are much more response-focused than disaster mitigation-focused.

Two key issues in the disaster management governance of Ladakh were highlighted in the study. For one, natural disasters are often framed by the government as extraordinary events. As a result, data and experiences are not systematically recorded.

“De-exceptionalising hazards and disasters is the first step to effectively preparing for them,” Field told GlacierHub.

Historical records of disasters are inadequate, which is problematic when it comes to learning from past crises and improving community coping strategies. It limits our understanding of how hazards figure into the daily lives of communities that live in vulnerable environments, such as communities at the high altitudes of the Himalayas.

Secondly, “there must be a shift from a reactive, hazard-centered approach (where the army seems the natural lead) to a more proactive approach,” Field said.

Locals felt that the response displayed by the military and the local population during the onset of a disaster, such as the cloudburst event in 2010, were “reactive, adhoc and largely insufficient,” the paper notes.

Despite the development of a Disaster Management Plan by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in 2011, the local community remains ill-prepared. Although good practices to effectively deal with disasters in the future are proposed, it has not been translated to action to reduce the loss of lives and damage to property. Illegal construction using non-resilient materials is still carried out on flood-prone areas, flood mitigation projects are left uncompleted, and local knowledge of evacuation remains limited without a formal, village-level assessment of vulnerability.

Offering her insights on disaster risk management and governance, Field told GlacierHub that the plan needs to “one, focus on longer-term preparedness led by the community and civil society; two, account for vulnerability and the wider social dynamics of a region; and three, systematically record data and experiences of crises to inform future disaster risk reduction efforts.”

Humanitarian aid organizations are often unable to gain clearance to work in these protected areas, even during emergency situations.

However, the process of reducing disaster vulnerability in Ladakh does not come easy. Previous studies have warned of the maladaptive forces of modernization, urbanization and globalization in spurring unsustainable and non-disaster resilient infrastructure. The current nature of disaster governance in the region, including the heavy military presence in Ladakh, needs to be considered.

As a securitized zone, which is similar to the Siachen Glacier region GlacierHub has previously reported on, many of the villages within Ladakh are classified as “Protected Areas,” requiring special government permits for access. Humanitarian actors and aid organizations are often unable to gain clearance to work in these areas, even during emergency situations. This situation stems back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War when civilian interference was seen as a major cause of India’s defeat.

Many of the “Protected Areas” still have heavy military presences, even under civilian governance and emergency-preparedness activities. It is thus unsurprising that the emergency-focused elements of the military strategy for Ladakh also focus overwhelmingly on reactive and rescue, rather than risk reduction, which Field suggests in her paper have the hidden motive “to gain the trust and cooperation of the local population and legitimize their continued presence.”

Based on other research she co-authored, Field thinks that environmental hazards in the region do not create or resolve conflicts. However, where climate change and hazards exacerbate the vulnerabilities of a population, then (depending on the political context) there can be a risk of conflict escalation and/or increased securitization in the area. Notably, this does not come from the environmental change in and of itself, but rather from the dynamics of the response and the support (or lack of) for recovery and reconstruction.

Field suggests that potential securitization risks from environmental change in Ladakh could involve an increase in environmentally-induced internal migration from the surrounding region. This is not a threat in and of itself, but the central or state government may seek to further expand their security apparatus in Ladakh, given the political dynamics of the state.

“With increased hazards, we are also likely to see the expansion and entrenchment of the military in the area, who are seen as the most appropriate primary responders,” Field added.

This article was originally published on GlacierHub. GlacierHub is managed by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. Sabrina Ho Yen Yin is a student in the M.A. Program in Climate and Society at Columbia University. 

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