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Uttarakhand Revisited: Three Years After Floods, Threats Remain Unaddressed

10/08/2016 2:11 PM IST | Updated 12/08/2016 8:56 AM IST
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A few days after my return from Uttarakhand, news flashed across media stating that a cloudburst had affected several districts of the state, killing many people and washing away houses. I had visited the state in June to meet some of the people who had survived the major flood of 2013. It's been three years since a multi-day cloudburst resulted in devastating floods and landslides in Uttarakhand that caused innumerable damage to people, property and the land. What had changed? Were people prepared for another calamity? What could be done to ensure it didn't happen again? One thing was clear, progress was slow and the communities hadn't completely recovered yet.

The drive through the remote mountain road was long and perilous. It was hard to imagine how aid reached these parts when most of the roads and bridges had been washed away during the floods. Roads that had been submerged underwater or destroyed by landslides were now newly built and there was a constant stream of cars and buses ferrying pilgrims and tourists.

What disaster risk management system has been established in the region? How can the community take ownership of the environment and help in protecting it?

The river looked harmless and placid, as it meandered its way downstream, almost perfectly concealing the deadly fury it had unleashed just three years ago. The giveaways were the torn and battered ruins scattered along the valley. Broken bridges, collapsed houses, felled transmission towers; images that remain to serve as grave reminders of the powerful and destructive force of nature.

The communities here had never experienced a disaster like this before. That was why they were caught totally unprepared and completely by surprise, even though they noticed the abnormally incessant rains and that water levels had risen dangerously high. They assumed it would pass, as it always did. A decision they deeply regretted merely hours later.

Villages in the districts of Rudraprayag and Chamoli, where homes and businesses had been washed away, were mostly restored and life seemed to be slowly getting on. Aid had reached them in many forms. The government had financially recompensed some families, which helped in rebuilding their homes and lives. However, not all were as fortunate as some communities still awaited their share of compensation from the government. Many were losing hope they'd ever receive it.

World Vision India provided economic development assistance to compensate a measure of the loss they had suffered and to help them get back on their feet. This varied from livestock to appliances to furniture -- all possessions that they had lost in the flood. It was encouraging to note the long-term benefits of this as the livestock were multiplying, investors were helping to power small businesses, and fridges helped keep perishables fresh in shops and in homes. All this helped families start afresh and be self-sufficient again after the disaster claimed everything they owned.

Sustainable development is the key to finding solutions to the problems the communities and the environment are facing.

However, it's clear that this was still not enough to help in the rehabilitation process as the communities are struggling to make ends meet. There is high indebtedness as families had to borrow additional funds to help rebuild their homes. Job opportunities are scarce and most of the youth are unemployed or working odd jobs to also help support their families and pay back loans. Those who can afford it are moving out in search of better work opportunities. Many are disheartened and angry that not enough has been done to help raise them from their afflictions.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Workers repair a road damaged by a landslide in Chamba, Uttarakhand

Despite all the setbacks and difficulties, the communities continue to slowly rebuild their lives with hope, making the best of what is available to them; and with so little, they are still able to support each other, in whichever way possible. An admirable quality, that has helped see them through the past three years.

The communities weren't prepared the first time and it certainly doesn't seem like they are prepared today, should a second disaster strike. While they learned some survival skills from past mistakes, such as to build homes away from the riverbank and move to higher ground should weather conditions worsen, important questions still remain unanswered. What disaster risk management system has been established in the region? How can the community take ownership of the environment and help in protecting it? Questions that can only be answered when the community and government work together in agreement, to find solutions best suited for the region.

It is widely accepted that the degrading environment played a fundamental role: increased cloud bursts in the region due to global warming, numerous hydroelectric projects, unchecked infrastructural development along the riverbanks, rampant pollution all contributed to the disaster that some say "was waiting to happen".

Time is running out as our relentless and selfish appetites are destroying the fragile Himalayan environment.

Development, although necessary, should never come at such a steep cost. Uttarakhand needs to move away from their pursuit of hydropower projects to more feasible ventures. They must invest instead in their greatest asset -- the eco-system. Sustainable development is the key to finding solutions to the problems the communities and the environment are facing. In spite of mass development along the valley, unemployment is still very high and severe damage is being caused to the environment. Local residents are the worst affected from all this; so much so that entire communities were forced to adapt and change their way of life in face of a disaster they earlier never knew.

Time is running out as our relentless and selfish appetites are destroying the fragile Himalayan environment. It's not too late for the political and administrative policymakers to find solutions and take steps in the right direction. Given a chance, the environment can heal itself, but the recent flashfloods and landslides last month are proof that the issue is still not resolved. We share a delicate balance with our environment and even the slightest shift can result in severe consequences. One can only hope that transformation comes before the damage is irreparable.

Golden Baba

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