NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Devastating floods in northern India have killed at least 680 people, government officials said on Monday, but they warned the death toll could soar as debris and roads are cleared following what many are calling a “Himalayan Tsunami”.
Aid workers said it was a race against time to get food, drink and medicines to tens of thousands of survivors, with one charity warning that children are already dying because they cannot reach medical help.
The floods - triggered by unusually early and heavy monsoon over a week ago - have inundated villages and towns, swept away vast tracts of farmland, buildings, roads and bridges and caused huge landslides in the mountainous region of Uttarakhand.
Thousands of India's military and air force personnel are helping with rescue and relief operations in the area, a popular Hindu pilgrimage destination due to its numerous shrines and temples.
There are no official figures on how many people have been affected, but Save the Children said at least 150,000 people, almost half of them children, had been displaced by the flooding and need immediate help.
Fresh rains on Monday hampered rescue and relief operations, and aid workers said more rains were expected in the coming days.
Indian television news channels said the bad weather meant most military helicopters, being used for airlifts and distribution of aid rations, were grounded. Fresh landslides caused by the rains had also choked some routes.
Some survivors are living in the open, others have taken refuge in schools.
"People are running out of food, and we know children are already dying because they can't reach medical help," said Latha Caleb, Save the Children's director of programmes in India, adding that a one-year-old girl had died of pneumonia due to a lack of medical care.
"The next few days are critical in getting adequate aid to survivors. Right now, the focus is all about saving lives."
Around 150,000 pilgrims have so far been airlifted to safety, but an estimated 10,000 people remain stranded, with more landslides hampering rescue efforts.
While the government focus has centered on rescuing the pilgrims, who flock in their hundreds of thousands to Uttarakhand's holy sites every summer, aid workers stressed that local people should not be forgotten.
"All the attention is focused on the pilgrims and tourists, yet many of the local people have also been severely affected," said Sehjo Singh, programme and policy director from ActionAid India, which is working in the area.
"The saddest part is that it is the most marginalised and the poorest communities who live in this mountainous area that are the worst hit. Whatever little they had just got washed away. The poorest just got poorer."
Many of those affected eke out a living from subsistence farming and cattle rearing and have had their homes and rice paddy crops destroyed and livestock drowned by the deluge.
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