A few days ago I wrote about the monsoon floods that had struck various parts of India over the weekend. Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune were included on the list of areas that had suffered. The northern Indian state of Uttarakhand had also suffered terrible flooding, but the whole story was yet to emerge.
At the time of writing, reports state that the flooding in Uttarakhand has left around 60 dead and as many as 60,000 stranded. Some reports claim that some of the bodies of the victims are still lying in the flood debris, as conditions are too treacherous to reach them. Landslides and raging floods stand in their way. It is estimated that 400 roads have been blocked and 20 bridges collapsed, making it almost impossible to get travel to or from the affected areas. It is feared that the death toll may rise as rescue teams are finally able to reach the flooded areas.
It seems the worst affected area is the town of Kedarnath in Uttarakhand. The town is a Hindu holy town, where thousands make a pilgrimage to visit the Kedarnath shrine and temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is located high in the Garhwal Himalayan range, close to the Mandakini river in Kedarnath. It is only open to visitors from spring to autumn, and therefore receives so many visitors in such as short period. Other affected areas include the Yamunotri, Gangotri, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts of Uttarakhand, which are also holy sites visited by 1,000 of pilgrims.
Rescue missions have begun but have been hampered by conditions, especially landslides. 14 teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), as well as around 6,000 Indian army troops have been deployed. Indian Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, has said that emergency food relief is being sent to the affected areas. The rescue teams report that around 4,000 people have been rescued so far, but there are as many as 60,000 still stranded. Around 18 military helicopters have been used in rescue missions. The rescue operation has its HQ in Badrinath. Food and blankets have been sent out where possible, and medical teams have been set up at various points across the region.
The neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh has also been badly affected, with reports of as many as 1000 dead as a result of flash floods.
Uttarakhand is no stranger to flood disasters and horrific landslides in recent years. In 2010, around 72 people died in flash floods in September that year. In 2011, 77 people died in floods and landslides in the state over a period of a few weeks after the monsoon rains first struck in July that year. In 2012, the Himalayan Flash Floods of that year affected Uttarakhand and neighbouring states, with as many as 31 people dead and 40 missing.
Uttarakhand is a mountainous state, with large areas of forest, especially the lower foothills of the Himalayas. However, deforestation has been a big issue lately, and experts say rapid deforestation and construction work in the hills are some of the reasons behind frequent floods and landslides. Blasts to clear tunnels or build dams for various large engineering projects, such as mining and hydro-power, have resulted in landslides and the build up of debris in the rivers. This means that rivers levels are already high, before the monsoon rains even begin to fall. Deforestation also adds to the problem, resulting in soil erosion and further landslides.
According to IBN:
More than 220 power and mining projects are running in 14 river valleys in Uttarakhand. Several rivers are being diverted through tunnels for these projects leading to major disasters in the state.
The fact that so many visitors were in the area has added to the problem, and made the numbers of those stranded staggeringly high. The media in India has been shocked by the drama of events in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. People are understandably disturbed by the fact that many of the victims were on a holy pilgrimage. Many of the media outlets are disturbed by the lack of disaster management and lack of flood preparedness. In an area that has suffered terrible floods consistently over the last few years, it is understandable that India feels angry that the authorities seem incapable of handling such disasters.