Q+A: The impact of the deadly floods in India's Himalayas

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 July 2013 12:22 GMT

Workers repair a road damaged by a landslide, which was caused by heavy rainfall, as their children listen to songs on a mobile phone in Chamba, in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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Authorities and aid workers try to negotiate blocked roads to get to remote mountain villages cut off by flash floods in India's Himalayan region of Uttarakhand but the true extent of the disaster remains unknown

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Devastating floods have killed hundreds of people in India's Himalayan region of Uttarakhand and left tens of thousands in need of aid and rehabilitation.

The disaster, which was triggered by heavy pre-monsoon rains on June 15 and 16, has been dubbed a “Himalayan Tsunami” by local media due to the torrent of water that was unleashed. Entire villages are reportedly buried by landslides, while many roads, bridges and buildings have been swept away.

The area's popularity as a Hindu pilgrimage destination is complicating the situation further. Its four temple towns of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri make up the site called "Char Dham Yatra", attracting hundreds of thousands of devotees from all over India and abroad during the peak summer months. There were more than 100,000 visiting pilgrims in the area when the flash floods and landslides hit.

As authorities and aid workers try to negotiate blocked roads to get to remote mountain villages cut off by the deluge, this is what we know so far about the scale of the disaster:

1. What is the human impact?

The official death toll stands at 580 but at least 3,000 people are still missing, says Vijay Bahuguna, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand state. Some government officials and aid workers believe the death toll could be significantly higher.

Tens of thousands of local people are believed to have been hit – either their homes have been damaged or destroyed, or they've lost their crops or other means of livelihood such as jobs in the religious tourism industry, a mainstay of the local economy. The worst affected districts are Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Tehri Garhwal.

The government has not given any final figures on the scale of the damage or the number of dead but charity ActionAid India estimates the death toll alone could climb to 5,000 people.

“Initial assessments suggest 300,000 people have been affected, 50,000 displaced and roughly 10,000 injured in the affected region,” the charity said in a statement on Thursday.

2. Why don't we know the full scale of this disaster even after two weeks?

This disaster is unlike others, say aid workers. The mountainous terrain and remote, scattered villages make the situation much more challenging for authorities trying to assess the number of dead and the level of destruction.

Power and telecommunications links have been destroyed in the area, making it difficult to reach survivors by phone or the internet.

Many villages in the interior of the hilly state remain cut off due to landslides and getting food, water and other relief materials to those who are stranded without supplies remains a hurdle. For example, the Kedarnath Valley – one of the worst affected areas – is only accessible by helicopter.

Aid workers who were involved in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami say it was easier to recover bodies and access survivors during that emergency.

Trucks carrying relief supplies have been stuck on roads for hours waiting for routes to be cleared. Many aid workers are having to trek for hours to get to small hamlets.

3. How have the Indian government and humanitarian agencies responded?

The immediate response has been to focus on the rescue of over 100,000 visiting Hindu pilgrims from other parts of India who were in the area when the disaster struck.

The Indian army, air force and other service personnel have been evacuating pilgrims by land and air, sheltering them in temporary relief camps before helping them to return home.

The rescue operation has been called India's largest ever evacuation by the media, with helicopters alone rescuing more than 10,000 survivors.

The focus is now shifting to the identification of the dead and the disposal of corpses. There are fears that with heavy rains in the area, drinking water sources could become contaminated – triggering epidemics of diarrhoea or cholera. Mass cremations, in accordance with Hindu last rites, have begun. Many bodies are still believed to be buried under sludge and debris.

Relief distribution has started. The authorities and aid workers say they are reaching more and more villages every day. Immediate priorities are dry food rations, clean drinking water, tarpaulin sheets and medicines.

Another priority is to begin restoring infrastructure by clearing roads, repairing bridges and rebuilding telecommunications and power lines.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has promised 10 billion rupees ($167 million) in disaster relief to Uttarakhand. He has also offered 200,000 rupees ($3,400) to the families of each of the dead and 50,000 rupees ($840) to the injured, as well as money to rebuild homes, from his national relief fund.

The Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority said it hoped to start paying compensation by the second week of July.

4. Could this disaster have been averted?

According to some reports, the monsoon rains arrived two weeks before they were due in the region and were the heaviest in 60 years.

However, many environmentalists say the over-exploitation of India's ecologically sensitive Himalayas – for hydropower, logging and religious tourism – over the last few decades worsened the level of destruction.

“There are of course links between climate change and extreme weather events as has happened with the torrential rain in Uttarakhand,” Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment told Firstpost.com.

“But this has been exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many of the settlements have been built right next to the rivers in blatant violation of environmental laws.”

And warnings had been given. A 2009 report by India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) warned that no specific measures had been taken within the numerous hydropower projects to mitigate the risk from flash floods.

India's early warning systems and overall level of disaster management and response have also come into question, underpinning a CAG report in April that criticised both the national and state disaster management authorities for not being better prepared for such a natural calamity.

5. What are the immediate and long-term challenges posed by this disaster?

The Indian government says it has enough immediate aid. Humanitarian agencies are providing relief supplies in areas where the authorities are not present. They have also launched appeals and have dispatched pre-stockpiled materials to the area. The amount of aid does not seem to be a challenge at this stage.

However, the logistical challenges of getting aid to survivors remain huge with thousands of villages still only accessible by air.

There is also a risk of more landslides and floods with more heavy rains as the monsoon season has now begun in earnest. Some aid workers warn of a “disaster within a disaster” if more such cloudbursts occur.

Bad weather could also disrupt the restoration of infrastructure and cause roads that have been cleared to become choked again.

The medium- to long-term challenges will centre on rebuilding livelihoods, given that the Char Dham Yatra is unlikely to open within the next year or so.

Many inhabitants were dependent on the religious tourism industry, either owning or working in hotels, shops or other businesses. Thousands of people were also employed as porters, helping to carry the possessions of pilgrims up the steep mountain passes to the shrines.

Local subsistence farmers, who have lost their livestock and crops such as rice paddy and potatoes, will also need support.

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