Girls wade through a flooded alley at a shopping arcade after heavy monsoon rains caused the rise in waters of Yamuna river in New Delhi June 20, 2013.
By David Tereshchuk*
Massive destruction has overtaken India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, on the slopes of the Himalayan mountain range, since intense monsoon rains and floods began to wreak their havoc in June.
Fresh outbreaks of heavy rainstorms have meant serious setbacks for rescue and relief efforts—and though numbers are quite impossible to verify accurately, four weeks after the first deluges— well over 5,000 people are still reckoned to be missing. The official death toll has already risen above 800, though unofficial sources put the number at several thousands. It is perfectly possible that the true number of deaths will never be known.
One poignant factor adding to the disaster’s dimensions is that Uttarakhand traditionally welcomes an enormous visiting population. It is often called “the abode of gods” because of its innumerable ancient temples, which attract pilgrims all year round. Unknown numbers of homes and other buildings, including some revered temples, have been destroyed in catastrophic landslides brought on by the flooding. The number of families made homeless is inevitably incalculable.
UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has an Indian partner active in this disaster— Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA-India), a co-member of the ACT Alliance.
“We are fortunate in having CASA as partners,” says Jack Amick, who leads UMCOR’s International Disaster Response. “They are not only locally-based with deep knowledge of the territory and the people, but they are also well-connected internationally as part of the ACT Alliance”.
CASA, even with its local knowledge, has been hard-pressed to help Uttarakhand’s severely hit communities, given the enormity of the catastrophe, but progress is being made against the daunting odds.
The agency’s work has involved emergency first aid, setting up health camps and community kitchens, and helping relatives as much as possible to get in touch with their missing loved ones. Food needs are being met through the distribution of fruit, nutritional biscuits, mineral water and glucose.
In the interest of effective and fast distribution, CASA has established new warehouses in the state capital, Dehradun, and in the three flood-affected districts. Relief items such as woollen blankets, hygiene kits, buckets, pressure-cookers and food utensils are being collected there, to be sent out to those who need them.
In Agastmuni, 120 miles to the east of the capital by nearly impassable mountain roads, Kunwar Prasad Goswami used to live with his family in a substantial house. It is now a mass of debris. His is a case of complete loss. Goswami’s house was built with a loan of about $60,000 (US dollars). Now the family’s entire collateral on that loan has been wiped away.
CASA volunteers have stepped in to help the Goswami family and many others, working with local partners on the ground, notably a people’s organization called The Mountain Collective. At least a start is being made to help the families along a path of recovery, as the partners provide the basics that are needed—temporary shelter, food, and medicine.
CASA’s head of emergency services, Nirmal J. Singh, reports that flood survivors tell him “their only hope is the voluntary organizations like CASA, who are actively coming forward to their aid.”
UMCOR’s Amick points out: “All the members of such communities will often look after each other very effectively when something terrible happens to one family. But when most of the community gets washed away, then inevitably the survivors will really need an organization like CASA and its partners to step in.”
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*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to UMCOR.org