The Human Impact

The night the rain fell: Living in fear in India’s Himalayas

July 22, 2013

I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

It poured and poured and didn’t seem to let up. I could hear it crashing down relentlessly. It was so loud that I had to get out of bed to check whether the window of my hotel room was open. It wasn’t.

The pitch blackness outside didn’t help to allay my anxiety. All I could hear was the thunderous noise of the rain beating down and rushing waters of the Alaknanda River on the banks of which my hotel in the Indian Himalayas was located.

Being the Twitter-freak I am, I shared my discomfort with the rest of the world.

“Heavy rain in Karanprayag. Love rain in Delhi, fear it in Uttarakhand,” I typed on my phone, just praying that my internet connection would hold long enough for my tweet to go through.

It may seem odd to fear the rain. But my fear was justified.

I had spent days listening to painful stories from survivors in India’s northern Uttarakhand region of how incessant rains last month caused mighty Himalayan rivers to overflow – inundating villages and towns and triggering massive landslides, causing thousands of people to perish.

From villages situated in valleys on the banks of rivers, to towns located on steep mountain passes – inhabitants spoke of those fateful days on June 16 and 17, when what has come to be known as the “Himalayan tsunami” – came, sweeping away their homes, shops, schools, and restaurants, washing away their crops and carrying away their loved ones in the rushing waters.

“RAINS MEAN DEATH”

One month on, the Indian government has declared that the almost 6,000 people registered as missing are now to be presumed dead. Around two million people have had their lives disrupted, many of whom will need support for many months to come.

“The rains mean death to us now,” says Maheshwari Devi, 41, whose home and farmland in Govindghat town located on the banks of the Alaknanda River was partially destroyed when the river’s waters started invading on the night of June 16.

While the monsoon rains are an annual occurrence in India, they were not only two weeks early, they were the heaviest recorded in the region, and Maheshwari knew something was wrong.

She quickly took her 15-year-old frail son, Santosh – who is too weak to walk due to intestinal tuberculosis – in her arms and trekked up a hill to a road where they took refuge in a parked car for one and a half days.

Now she is afraid of returning to her home on the river banks, choosing instead to live in a tent on the hill above her damaged home, with Santosh lying feebly on a makeshift bed as the flies buzz around him.

“I won’t live there now. It’s too dangerous when the rains come. I can’t take the risk,” she tells me.

BETTER PLANNING

I see the fear of the rains in the eyes of many I meet over the seven days I travel in this devastated region.

People talk of how they run out of their houses as soon as it starts raining – either fearing a deluge from the burgeoning rivers, or mounds of mud and boulders crashing down from the mountains above.

It’s a precarious existence in these beautiful, yet treacherous Himalayan regions of India.

We can’t do anything to stop the increasing severity of the monsoons, which many experts believe are related to climate change, but we can certainly plan better to safeguard the lives of our people and our infrastructure.

Flood-control measures such as building of embankments, enforcing bans on constructions on river banks, relocating and compensating vulnerable communities to safer areas are a must.

Some here are clearly suffering from trauma after this disaster and need to feel protected from such an event ever occurring again.

Even if it never rains like this again, living in constant fear of death is no way to live.

PHOTO CAPTION: Maheshwari Devi, 41, with her ailing son, Santosh, in a makeshift tent in Govindghat, 19 km from Joshimath town in India’s Uttarakhand state on July 14, 2013. Many people are living in fear of more rains after thousands of homes, roads and bridges Uttarakhand were damaged when massive monsoons triggered floods and landslides on June 16 and 17, devastating the area and killing almost 6,000 people. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Nita Bhalla

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