Landslides menace Kashmir's unprotected mountain villages

by Ashutosh Sharma | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 10 October 2014 09:00 GMT

Saddal village in Jammu and Kashmir was destroyed by a landslide last month, picture taken on Sept. 23, 2014. TRF/Ashutosh Sharma

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Experts say there is an urgent need for disaster prevention and soil conservation measures in the Himalayan region

UDHAMPUR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gloom and grief pervade the mountain village of Saddal in Jammu and Kashmir, since it was turned into a mass grave by a huge mudslide triggered by torrential downpours last month.

Rocks and boulders, tonnes of mud and uprooted trees devoured all 67 households here, leaving only a few signs that the hillside was home to a Himalayan hamlet of 400 people.

The tragedy that hit on Sept. 7 demonstrates the lack of protection from landslides and rock falls that threaten more than 6 million people living in mud houses perched on the Himalayan slopes of India’s Jammu and Kashmir region.

Experts say there is an urgent need for disaster prevention and soil conservation measures to protect inhabitants of the Sivalik hills, the geologically youngest east-to-west mountain chain in the Himalayas.

S.K. Pandita, director of the Centre for Disaster Management at the University of Jammu, called for a fully fledged government department to manage disasters in the northern Indian state, which is also troubled by a long-running insurgency and conflict with neighbouring Pakistan.

“In spite of the fact that the majority of people in Jammu and Kashmir live on mountain terrain, not a single agency has been working to prevent landslides,” Pandita said.

The authorities should introduce policies to reduce the risk of disasters, including guidelines for geologists to be consulted before house and road construction, research on the stability of mountain slopes with human settlements, and awareness-raising about landslides, he added.

UNSTABLE SLOPES

In Saddal, nearly 130 km from the Indian state’s winter capital of Jammu, the small stream now trickling down the mountain belies the raging torrent that ripped apart the sleepy settlement a month ago.

Around 40 people were buried under the rubble, and some of their bodies have yet to be found. According to Mulkh Raj, the deputy village head, the mudslide devastated everything across more than 15 acres of farmland including hundreds of apple trees.

Public works to lay roads in recent years have left most of the mountains in this area bare of green cover, leading to frequent landslides and rock falls during extreme weather events such as heavy rains, floods and snowfall – which scientists warn could intensify with climate change.

Arterial roads and highways are often blocked by landslides, which are becoming more common according to local media reports. During last month’s rains, several parts of the state, including the Kashmir Valley, were completely cut off by massive mudslides for more than 20 days.

The heavy rains have left many mountain sides unsafe for habitation, local people say.

“Every house is at risk of being flattened by landslides at any time in Cherag village, which houses 25 families. The earth is developing cracks,” said the head of the nearby village of Dubbigali in Udhampur district. Other villages face similar threats, he added.

“Over 80 families across 10 villages of Kishtwar district are living with the mudslide threat, as the villages have been constantly sinking since the 2005 earthquake,” said District Development Commissioner Javed Khan, adding that he had reported the subsidence problem to the higher authorities.

The Himalayan mountain range is one of the world’s most active seismic regions. On Oct. 8, 2005, an earthquake that struck both sides of the border dividing Kashmir, as well as in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, killed around 75,000 people.

AID SLOW TO ARRIVE

Saddal village is a three to four hour walk from the nearest road passable by vehicles, along a narrow track snaking through thick vegetation. Along the way stand deserted mud houses battered by the rains, surrounded by damaged maize crops in terraced fields.

Villagers said cracks began appearing in the land at 11:30 am on the day of the disaster, pushing some to flee the mountain.

“There had been warning signs, but many could not imagine that the whole mountainside would just cave in,” survivors told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If the village had been connected by road, rescue workers and equipment could have saved many lives, they said. But the rescue operation only started three days after the mudslide.

Amid reports of fresh landslides, the administration shifted panicked people to safer locations in late September, according to Puran Chand, an official supervising relief work in Udhampur.

More than 100 families from Saddal and the surrounding area are now sheltering in makeshift tent camps after their houses were damaged and their farms flooded and swamped by mud.

Camp dweller Nimu Ram said he had yet to receive any aid. “No ration, no tent, no blanket - nothing,” he said. He managed to save one of his children, but his wife and nine-year-old son were trapped when their house collapsed.

Experts at the Geological Survey of India, based in Jammu, have said they are working to ascertain the reasons for the landslide at Saddal.

Tirth Ram’s brother Shounku Ram was buried alive there, along with his wife, two sons and their wives, and three grandchildren. Tirth continues to visit the site of the disaster every day, still hoping their bodies can be found to perform “the last rites”.

(Editing by Megan Rowling)

Ashutosh Sharma is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir, India.

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