Aid workers struggle to get to India's flood survivors

by Nita Bhalla
Tuesday, 25 June 2013 15:58 GMT

Volunteers wait to unload wood from a truck to be used for mass cremation at Kedarnath at an airport in Gauchar in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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The floods, which were triggered by heavy pre-monsoon rains, have devastated the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, killing at least 680 and displacing tens of thousands

(Corrects helicopter death toll to 8 in paragraph 8)

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mountainous terrain, heavy rains, landslides and remote locations are some of the challenges facing aid workers in northern India struggling to get food, water and medicine to hundreds of thousands of flood survivors, charities said.

The floods, which were triggered by heavy pre-monsoon rains over a week ago, have devastated the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, killing at least 680 and displacing tens of thousands. The deluge has also swept away buildings and homes and destroyed major roads, bridges and vast tracts of farmland. The death toll is expected to rise significantly.

The disaster, dubbed by the Indian media as a "Himalayan Tsunami", unleashed torrents of water in the hilly region, sending boulders and mud sludge crashing down and burying homes and buildings.

Aid workers say they are now struggling to gain access to interior areas in the worst affected districts of Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarakashi - a popular region for Hindu pilgrims due to its numerous shrines and temples.

"There is a real sense of frustration as we have relief materials available but our teams on the ground cannot get to the worst affected areas. There are so many obstacles which make this disaster much more difficult than others," said Munish Kaushik from the Dutch charity, Cordaid.

"More rains have started in the area which is very mountainous and this has resulted in roads which had just been cleared, being blocked once again. Villages are remote and scattered and we have major difficulties to even assess the number of people affected."

Kaushik was speaking after chairing a meeting of representatives from humanitarian agencies, held under the auspices of Sphere India - which includes several international charities such as Oxfam, Plan, Medicins Sans Frontiers, ActionAid and Catholic Relief Services.

Most of the affected area is accessible only by air and thousands of India's military and air force personnel are helping with rescue operations. However even the air force suffered a setback on Tuesday when a helicopter crashed due to bad weather in Rudraprayag district. Eight people, including five air force personnel, were reported killed.

Aid workers said while the main focus has been on rescuing the tens of thousands of pilgrims who were in the area when the floods started on June 15, the focus now had to be on local residents - many of whom have lost homes, cattle and crops.

"It's difficult to know how many people exactly have been hit by this tragedy but based on initial reports from the field and the census figures for these areas, it is easily hundreds of thousands of people who will need support," said Murali Kunduru, technical advisor from Plan India.

"We are all being told to wait a few more days due to the weather conditions and blocked routes, but there is a tragedy unfolding here and we need to get to people as quickly as possible."


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