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India floods: Land of landslides

A huge portion of land washed away by the floods in India, destroying agricultural areas

Ever spent a day watching land slide? This was the lot of a Save the Children team in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. Whole stretches of road here were swept away in the June floods. Our team got separated from the trucks carrying distribution material to Govindghat, which lies along the Alaknanda river, so we and a Reuters media crew got to watch the landslide area being cleared – only to be filled again, over and over. We saw how one small rock started a snowball effect, how one patch of grass lying overhead suddenly tore away from the ridge and plummeted across the road into the river and how, tirelessly, man and machine worked as one to carve a path so that people and vehicles, waiting on both sides, could cross over.

Will our trucks – and the staff and volunteers who had also got through earlier – be able to return after distributing their contents? Stuck along with us are a Public Works Department vehicle, an ambulance from the Hemkunt Saheb Trust and some vehicles carrying government relief supplies – not to mention food for the 800-odd ponies stuck on the other side of the Alaknanda since the bridge at Govindghat was destroyed. This is the biggest problem in relief distribution now: how does one reach places when the roads no longer exist and landslides are as unpredictable as the monsoon rains have been?

“The risk is there not only for those bringing relief material but also for the beneficiaries: many of them have to traverse harsh terrain, without proper roads and bridges, to get to us, ” says Avinash K. Singh, Save the Children’s team leader, stationed in Joshimath.

Even though the monsoon season is just beginning in Uttarakhand, the road infrastructure – which is critical for providing relief to those affected by the floods — remains paralysed. The Border Organisation (BRO) is repairing the highways and the Public Works Department (which works through contractors) is responsible for the connecting roads but lack of adequate equipment, coupled with the continuous landslides, has blocked progress. It is thought that some roads could take four months to repair.

The BRO may be working around the clock in hazardous conditions to clear landslides but the delay in the construction of new roads does not augur well for anyone affected by the floods who doesn’t live beside a highway. The state government also seems to have a limited fleet of helicopters, which are dropping food rations but until the road network is functioning properly again, it will be very hard for adequate relief to reach those who need it the most – humans, livestock and of course, ponies.

Devendra Tak is National Manager – Media & Communication with Save the Children

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