Unpredictable changes in weather patterns are impacting life and livelihood in Ladakh.

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEHA SINHA

Arching over the white Phuktal river in Ladakh’s Zanskar valley—which is dotted with white-water rafting enthusiasts—is one bridge that the village of Neyrags calls its own.

For centuries, the villagers say, they have had a bridge. People took pictures of its stout structure, which appeared permanent in its reliability, and over-arching in its craggy height. Elders told youngsters how they did not know when the bridge was built. For the people of Neyrags, the bridge, non-motorable as it is, was a vital link to the world outside their valley.

Earlier this year, the river carried away this structure, carrying off wood, stone and clay, all in one angry day. The incident happened in a flash but it was in itself a predicted event, a chronicle foretold—repeatedly, loudly, and in vain.

The Neyrags bridge was one among 11 other bridges to be snatched away in a day, on May 7, in the remote Zanskar valley. But the river had given warnings that never reached Delhi.

In December, a landslide created a natural dam on the river. A resultant lake was formed: deep, frozen, and formidable. Locals predicted it was likely to burst if the dam was not broken. While the mountains and gorges of Ladakh look permanent, people stress that this is a landscape that is constantly shifting. The land often converts to landslides and mudslides, especially when it rains. The combination of two elements—water and terra firma—in one sliding, heaving motion is deadly.

Led by engineer and social activist Sonam Wangchuk, citizens and farmers first suggested the dam be broken gently with jets of water, to prevent more landslides and flooding.

“All the farmers of Ladakh know Ladakhi soil is very loose, very dry,” Wangchuk says. “If we suddenly try to create a passage for water, through blasting or explosions, the flow of the water over this soil would be uncontrollable.”

When a team from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reached Ladakh in April, they decided to use explosives anyway. Using blasting techniques, a narrow canal was created, which was videographed as a success story.

In the beginning, all seemed well. Then, as predicted, the lake burst on May 5, inundating over 20 villages, of which Neyrags was one.

The people of Neyrags, a village both windy and remote, never had it easy even with a bridge. After crossing it they have to walk four hours to reach the main road. From this road, vehicles ply and cell-phones work. The high, narrow bridge is therefore the artery of life.

When this artery was cut, the village went back in time. Donkeys and livestock which carry essential rations were stranded, and many were left starving. Colleges and schools on the “other side” remained unattended. People wondered what to do, because no one remembered how to make a bridge again. Food was running out.

“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.”

All he knows is that no cement was used.

About 20 days after the flood, the government provided a rope-pulley system for people to cross. It wasn’t enough. Donkeys and mules, essential carriers of essential items, still could not cross. Schools and many other buildings remained broken and needed attention. The new structure itself seemed rickety, and the dizzying drop to the river below seemed fatal.

Taking their destiny—and their lives—into their own hands, the people decided to make their own bridge. A meeting was held with the elders.

“You know, in Ladakh we always see natural calamities. Like you city people see traffic,” says Tsewang Namgyal from Neyrags. “In winter, snow avalanches come in our village. And we have seen a lot of rainfall in the past few years. But even then, we didn’t think we would lose our bridge. It was about six storeys high. Can you imagine how angry the water was, to take away something six storeys high?”

The village meeting led to the formation of smaller parties of people. Each day for about two months, 25 people worked. While bridge-making is not part of inherited memory, people did have a lot of photographs of the structure. They also had raw material, from the same mountains that rained debris down on them. Rock, wood and clay were procured from surrounding areas and mountain ranges. Most of the stone and clay was chiselled with hammers from mountains, in small teams, so that rocks could slowly be carried back.

A hunt was launched for dry poplar beams, which was easier to carry than trees with crowns. A remarkable crowd-funding programme was started. People started building from both ends, using log beams and stone that layered onto each other.

After two months of work, the bridge, made to withstand weight of 250 kilograms, opened on August 2. The first to cross was the deputy sarpanch of the village. Then a troop of children crossed. Finally, a bunch of donkeys crossed over to bring supplies. The artery was flowing again, and tiny Neyrags was back on the map.

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