19 June 2014 - It is a year since India’s beautiful northern Uttarakhand state was devastated by flooding and storms, and yet its inhabitants are still trying to recover.
On 14 June last year the heaviest rainfall for 80 years hit the region, causing landslides and flooding. Homes, businesses and livestock were engulfed by swollen rivers, crushed by falling debris, and still many roads remain unusable and access to remote villages challenging. To date, approximately 600 have been confirmed dead and more than 5,700 remain missing, although presumed dead.
Credit: Christian Aid / Sarah Filbey
Devastation and impact
As life in the hills is not easy and comes with its own set of challenges, the rigor and resilience of people have always deeply inspired me. Every year the beautiful mountains face sporadic metrological events which do not cause grave concern to its inhabitants as they seem to be consistent with the fragile conditions of the region. However, the disaster of June 2013 was so overwhelming that even the communities who are known for their ability to face difficult situations were shaken. Some of the people who survived the Chamoli Earthquake of 1999, the strongest to hit the foothills of the Himalayas in more than ninety years, confessed that they have never witnessed anything as devastating as last year’s flooding. The Chief Minister of Uttarakhand termed it the ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ and called for help from every quarter.
I visited affected communities within days of the disaster happening and have remained in the area intermittently overseeing the immediate distribution of aid and long-term support by Christian Aid’s local partner organisations.
A high percentage of those hurt or killed in last year’s disaster were taking part in the annual pilgrimage to shrines dotted throughout the hills. Yet, this year it’s remarkably quiet, and for an area heavily reliant on tourism, this isn’t good news.
Roughly 24 million people descend on the mountainous region each year, constituting 80 per cent of annual tourism. As accessibility remains severely reduced and shrines damaged, the pilgrimage is unlikely to attract many visitors, with many people apprehensive about returning in the next few years. The region’s many hoteliers, teashop owners and mule herders have been left without a means to earn a living due to the lack of demand for services. As a result there have been reports of families being forced to migrate from the area to find work elsewhere.
In response to the emerging needs of affected communities, Christian Aid and its partners initially addressed the immediate requirements of the people, giving out food packages, tents and essential non-food items such as kitchen utensils, buckets, solar lanterns, blankets and hygienic items.
Yet, following the immediate aftermath, our focus quickly became the more long-term solutions to address lack of household income across the region.
In Rudraprayag district, in the Kedar valley, the majority of people in the region rely on subsistence farming, growing enough to eat and selling whatever they have left over for cash to supplement their income from tourism and wages from other small jobs.
In order to support these households, Christian Aid introduced new job opportunities including silk-farming and bee-keeping, which aren’t labour intensive or reliant on land, but are very productive.
Silk farming is a lucrative year-round option, as the variety produced in Uttarakhand, known as Oak Tasar, has a unique shine and texture, making is particularly desirable in the market.
Similarly, beekeeping doesn’t require land, huge investment or hard labour. Last year’s disaster damaged the terrace agriculture farms, where crops are sewn in plots set into the mountainside, which will take time to re-sow and a couple of years to restore. Therefore these new schemes can provide instant income to affected families.
Both activities have given poor families, often headed up by women, the chance to earn money in these difficult times, remain close to their home and take care of their children and other household chores without causing additional burden.
We cannot forget that this region in the foothills of the Himalayas is fragile and young in comparison to other mountainous regions around the world, and the probability of future catastrophic events is high. And for this reason it’s vital the region’s inhabitants are prepared for the worst.
Disaster-prevention and training
When the rains hit last year the mountain communities were caught unawares with very little idea of how to deal with such a mega disaster in their remote and difficult landscape.
Christian Aid and its local partner organisations have since worked with the communities to develop their ability to prepare for disasters and monitor risk. People have learned about search and rescue techniques and have identified the most vulnerable households in preparation. They have started to introduce community-based early warning systems, to alert hill dwellers to approaching heavy rains and floods so they can protect themselves.
As the monsoon season approaches, these communities are preparing to put their new found knowledge into action. Hopefully, as more and more people learn about how to cope with the changing environment lives can be saved and they can continue with their lives despite nature’s extremes.
Yeeshu Shukla is an Emergency Programme Officer for Christian Aid.
This blog was first published in the Huffington Post.
Notes to editors:
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