Living in the midst of a humanitarian disaster: The victims of the Indian floods

Melanie Smith

172058523 300x199 Living in the midst of a humanitarian disaster: The victims of the Indian floods

An Indian man stands along a damaged road alongside the Mandakini river at Silli, in the flood affected area of northern Uttarakhand state (Getty Images)

Melanie Smith is a Press Officer at Christian Aid

Driving through the mountains towards Rudraprayag in India’s northern Uttarakhand state, the devastation was clear to see. Our car climbed over mounds of earth that have blocked the state highway into the valley following the storms that began on 14 June.

There were chunks of the tarmac missing, forming precarious cracks and holes in the road and leaving a view of the sheer drop to the river below. Further rain has been predicted for the coming days, and locals and visitors alike are bracing themselves for more landslides and flash floods. Helicopters are out again, preparing for what may come.

I’ve been in Uttarakhand for the past four days visiting people affected by the recent monsoon rains – the heaviest to hit the region in 80 years. Visiting a camp set up in a school in Uttrakashi, to the north of the state, I met survivors who have been forced to set up temporary homes with four to five families per classroom.

Many of the people I met belong to dalit – lower caste – communities, who are often socially excluded and discriminated against, are forced to live on the river bank – land that is no use to anyone else – exposing them to life-threatening floods. They explained that they’d woken one day to the find the river near to bursting, and a sea of debris hurtling towards their homes. With no time to rescue belongings, they fled.

They took me to where their homes were now sitting five foot deep with sand and silt, debris and belongings scattered across the roof tops. Sheela Devi, 55, said even though she’s lived there her whole life, she’s too scared to return, that ‘it’s a question of life and death’ for them. The people I met are now receiving food, water, blankets and essential medical care through through Christian Aid’s local partner organisation CASA, support they can’t do without., support they can’t do without. Many told me they hope to be relocated to a safer place, so this can’t happen again.

The many stories that have made their way into the media portray victims like Sheela to be pilgrims or urban communities. But as I discovered when I arrived in the region, communities residing high in the mountains have been greatly affected by the extreme weather too, something that isn’t readily reported.

I trekked for an hour-and-a-half into the Uttrakashi mountains to visit Udari village, a small community of 150 people. Following a cloud burst (an extremely heavy rain in a small area), the hillside started shifting and sections broke away causing landslides. Sitting among them I could see the devastation in their faces, women crying intermittently. Some of the villagers explained that their neighbour Dhanpal Singh’s home was partially crushed, killing his eight-month pregnant wife, his adoptive mother, and two of his children aged four and six. Three members survived – his father, his 10-year-old daughter Arti, and himself. Since the accident, Arti has barely uttered a word.

The shifting land has caused cracks to appear in many of their houses, and the government has announced that people whose houses have been partially damaged by the extreme weather are entitled to 10,000 rupees. Yet this is little to these people whose lives have been torn apart.

Here in Rudraprayag, the scene of the worst devastation, homes along the national highway – normally crammed with pilgrims at this time of the year, but now eerily empty – fell into the river before the communities’ eyes, everything they own washed away.  I saw a small pulley system being used to send food supplies to a village across the river, as the bridge had been washed away by the torrents of water, consequentially cutting off peoples’ food supply. The village’s leader told me that although many people have been killed by the floods, now it’s starvation that’s becoming a huge problem. Having fled the rising waters into the jungle above, many people became weak and disorientated, and are yet to return. Many villages are also cut off, with locals trekking up to 35km to access the government food rations.

This disaster is not over, it is very apparent that people are in need.  They have lost everything – friends, family, homes, businesses and agricultural land. In the short term, charitable organisations are planning to distribute tents. This beautiful mountainous landscape is the scene of a real humanitarian disaster, and if the rains continue, it is hard to predict what may happen.

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