23 june 2013

India counts cost of ‘Himalayan tsunami’ as flood toll climbs

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi, The Financial Times, June 23 2013

Authorities struggled to reach survivors in India’s flood-battered northern state of Uttarakhand amid bad weather that has hampered rescue efforts, while the state’s chief minister warned the death toll would exceed 1,000 after a “Himalayan tsunami” of flood waters.

India’s annual monsoon rains hit Uttarakhand two weeks ahead of schedule last Sunday, and with unusual ferocity. Flash floods and landslides flattened the boomtown surrounding the centuries old Kedarnath Shrine and washed away or buried buildings in numerous towns and villages.

After a week struggling to rescue tens of thousands of devout Hindu pilgrims across a vast mountainous area whose roads and communications have been all but destroyed, the scale of the disaster is only now becoming clear.

Indian army units and the state administration at the weekend raced to rescue an estimated 22,000 people, and airdrop food and supplies to others, before another fierce downpour, which was expected to hit the region on Sunday night. But authorities said they had to suspend helicopter operations on Sunday afternoon due to dense fog and renewed rain.

Each year the beautiful Himalayan region draws tens of thousands of religious pilgrims from across India, especially during May and June, normally the peak of the north India’s blistering summer heat. Uttarakhand has some of the country’s most sacred sites, from the holy Ganges river itself to shrines believed to be the home of powerful Hindu deities.

But this year many visitors’ spiritual pilgrimages have ended in disaster and death.

Officials say at least 664 people are confirmed dead. But Vijay Bahugana, the state’s chief minister, said late on Saturday night that the final toll from the disaster – which he has described as a “Himalayan tsunami” – will exceed 1,000, though it would likely take weeks to assess the complete toll from the tragedy.

Survivors who have returned home have begun sharing their tales of horror, including watching family members washed away by the raging waters and trying to hike to safety through corpse strewn river valleys.

Analysts say the tragedy was the result of a confluence of factors. The ecologically sensitive region has seen uncontrolled development, including along rivers, as local people have built hotels and other infrastructure for increasingly affluent Indians now able to afford pilgrimages that would have once seemed a distant dream.

The number of visitors to the remote Kedarnath Shrine – which is 11,000 feet above sea level and requires either an arduous trek or a helicopter ride to reach – increased from less than 87,000 in 1987 to nearly 600,000 last year. The Himalayan region has also seen a spate of hydropower construction projects and worsening deforestation, which critics say exacerbate the impact of extreme rains.

“Normal and period climatic events have been converted into man-made disasters, with man coming to colonise the flood plains and fragile river valleys and slopes in the hills with impunity,” Manoj Misra, an environmental activist, wrote in The Hindu newspaper on Sunday.

India is experiencing increasing volatility in its annual monsoon rains. Their unusually early arrival over Uttarakhand, and the heavier than normal rainfall, this year caught out many pilgrims, who would normally avoid visiting the mountains during the rainy season, and the government.

The volatility of the monsoon is likely to increase as a result of global warming, scientists say, with more variable timing of their onset and withdrawal, more extreme patterns of precipitation, and higher levels of rain compressed into shorter time spans followed by longer periods with no rain.

“I am not saying that this incident is the result of human-induced climate change,” says Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi and chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “But I would say that this is an example of the kind of event that you are going to see in much greater frequency and intensity in the future.”

The tragedy has highlighted the need for India to improve its disaster management efforts, critics say. Many stranded pilgrims and anxious relatives awaiting their safe arrival have also complained about the slow pace of rescue and relief effort, saying they are being charged exorbitant rates for tiny quantities of food.

Sushil Kumar Shinde, India’s home minister, admitted that the government rescue effort had been hit by a lack of co-ordination by different agencies involved in the process.

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