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The aftermath of the Uttarakhand floods

INDIA | Saturday, 15 March 2014 | Views [511]

In mid June 2013 there was an unprecented rainfall event in Uttarakhand, India. A combination of heavy rain and cloudbursts over a number of days created untold misery for thousands across the state. The Indian Army airlifted over 100 000 people out of pilgrimage/trekking routes in what was to become the biggest airlift in global history. The official loss of life stood close to 6000 people but the true toll will never be known. While much has been written on the scale of the disaster at Kedarnath - where the biggest loss of life occurred - and the subsequent dissection of causes, there was little information on the damage in other areas of the state. 

The Pindari Valley region was not spared and while no loss of life occurred, the fury that  nature unleashed over three days was 'unprecedented' in living memory'. We had just flown out of the country for a break in Australia, when the news came through of the disaster. Frantic phonecalls were made to Khati to no avail and in those first confusing few days there was little information to go on, we presumed the worst. I can clearly recall the sweaty arm pits and hands as I clasped the phone in futile attempts to connect to the other end. Then.... eventually success. The message was relayed that everyone was accounted for though communications were cut for some time and roads were blocked from intensive land slips.

On our arrival in Khati, the stories flowed on what happened over that period. It rained heavily for three consequetive days and nights. On day one no one was concerned. It was the tail end of the trekking season and some groups were still in the Pindari and Sunderdhunga regions. While over 60 men (and young boys) from Khati were at high altitude (over 4000m) in the search of 'khida - gas' (also known as yarsa gumbo/cordesyps sinensis) though it was toward the end of the season and were due to come down any day.

Prem who is in charge of the PWD at Dwali said that trekkers started to move down as it kept raining so accommodation was packed. On day two the river was so loud that people stayed up all night in fear as the sound of the rain and the even louder roaring river was deafening. On day three the  river kept rising to dangerous levels, pummelling everything it its wake, eventualy the embankments gave way taking out a significant landmass at Dwali, Tara's modest chai stall and had been perilously close to demolishing the PWD. Everyone's fears were well founded as nothing of this magnitude had ever been witnessed in the mountains.

As part of the Indian Government rescue operations over 50 tourists were evacuated from the region, the untold story was the 60 local men/boys at high altitude. As the rain continued the men soon concluded that this was a dangerous place to be and it was time to get to head home, only to soon realise that it wasn't possible by the conventional routes they would normally take. Luckily, among the men was a mountain guide -while local people do guide and porter it is usually at lower altitudes - who for the next three days navigated them over high mountain passes following an alternative route down the valley. Hunger and no sleep. They are the two things vivid in everyone's mind as they recount the terrifying three days and three nights it took to return to Khati.

Meanwhile in Khati, the women relayed to me, that it was endless tears that dominated their days and nights. The three days of rain had ended but there was no sign of a single male. As the bridges washed away and the sound of the embankments on the Pindari River collapsed and millions of tonnes of rock washed downstream they presumed they would never see their menfolk again.

The women claimed "Bhagwan has answered all our prayers" and conveyed feelings of pure elation when the returnees hit town hungry and tired. Never before in Khati's history had there been a day quite like it.....

Later we were to discover that the chai stall and the shepherds huts that doubled as sleeping/working quarters for the towns bamboo workers had simply vanished into the watery abyss. Of course everyone later (jovial, post event) said that all the cups and dishes were now probably in Bihar! Bishant and Taruli (chai stall owners) recounted they hadn't headed back to Khati because they were waiting for the last trekkers of the season to come through, though unconcerned by the rain,they noted they had never seen it rain for so long. Suddenly, the river notched up in sound, they headed up the nearsest slopes frantic in their escape to look back as everything was washed away before their eyes.

The river landscape is now totally unrecognisable and it is hard to fathom such monumental changes to the geography of the riverine system. Where once was intimate forest to the waters edge, is now a vast river bed of rock. I'm not really sure how to describe it as you sat in the river bed with rocks towering way above your head -with debris on top - and fallen trees for as far as you could see (though now most of the wood has been cut, carted and stored by the villagers) trying to imagine how it once was. There was a special huge boulder, surrounded by a deep pool, a red flowering rhododenron and a wooden bridge at Waucham, now they lie buried under untold tonnes of rock.  The bridges are all gone - the metal ones twisted and strewn across the rivers edge kilometres away - eleven in all, with one now left standing. Walking trails obliterated. 

The DM (District Magistrate) came into the area and proclaimed that the trekking route to Pindari could not be used for at least two years or until contractors are brought in for a totally new track work. This is simply not practical for local livliehoods, so during the September to November trekking season the odd group was taken up valley using goat trails and locals knowledge.  Tourism numbers were incredibly low, creating hardship for those who make cash from guiding, portering or carting trekking supplies via mule. Khida - gas which has become a valuable resource for cash in the last few years is now also in doubt with significant damage to the high altitude fields were collection occurs. The danger in this is the villagers pushing into higher, unknown and potentially dangerous territory in search of the 'black gold'.

During the initial phase the villagers of Waucham (which encompasses many hamlets including Jatoli) & Khati were allocated relief packages by the State Government. Tangible goods for each family like food rations, a blanket, portable solar lanterns and bigger promises of new tracks and bridges but nothing is yet to materialise.....

 

Bonnie

peAk Co-ordinator

 

 

Tags: india, khati, kumaon himalaya, uttarakhand floods

 

 

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