Relief efforts stepped up as thousands leave their homes to seek safety in Indian state
An aerial view of the flooded Aluva area of Kerala, where continuing rain, landslides and flash floods have killed 187 people since June. (Photo by IANS)
The Catholic Church has joined relief efforts as unprecedented floods and landslides continue to wreak havoc in India's Kerala state, killing 75 people within a week.
All 41 Catholic dioceses in the southern state have opened schools and other institutions to accommodate flood victims and are cooperating to send food, clothes and other relief materials to affected areas.
Thousands have fled their homes to reach safer places after incessant rain since Aug. 13 filled up reservoirs of Kerala's 33 dams to the brim, forcing authorities to open sluices. This left all 44 rivers to overflow and inundate homes, farms and roads and railways as floodwater gushed to the Arabian Sea on the state's western border.
"It is an extremely worrying situation," Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told media on Aug. 15, noting that heavy rain was forecast for another two days.
A red alert has been sounded across the state as the heaviest rain and floods since 1924 continue, leaving about 75,000 people in relief camps and causing damage worth US$1.2 million to crops and properties.
Water levels continue to increase in the plains amid threats of landslides in hilly districts. Road and rail lines remain flooded in several parts and the state's main Kochi International Airport has halted operations following the inundation of runways.
According to the federal National Emergency Response Centre, 187 people have lost their lives in Kerala since the monsoon season started in June.
"It is an unprecedented situation in my lifetime," said 70-year-old Father Jose Plachickal, vicar-general of Idukki Diocese, which covers one of the worst-hit hilly districts, home to the state's biggest dam. "The roads to many parishes are blocked because of massive landslides and uprooted trees."
Most people living near rivers lost all they had including homes when dam shutters were opened.
Many are moving out with whatever they can carry, fearing landslides from saturated slopes could hit their homes at any time, the priest said. But some believe their homes are the safest place.
"We cannot venture out of our homes … there is no guarantee to come back as you may face flash floods and landslides any time," said Cheriyan P.J., who lives in Valiyathovala village in Idukki district.
The 56-year-old Catholic farmer added: "Now we don't even feel safe in our homes as continuing rains have weakened our old houses. But where could I go?"
Father George Vettikattil, who directs Kerala Social Service Forum that oversees the Catholic Church's rescue and relief operations, said the situation is no better in other areas. "Thousands are in relief camps. Drinking water is a real issue in many areas. It is a terrible situation," he said.
In a report released on Aug. 12, the federal home ministry said 774 people had lost their lives in incidents related to floods and rain in seven states during the monsoon season.
The worst-affected states besides Kerala are West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Assam and Nagaland.
The church is "already out in the field" in Kerala through its social service wing Caritas India, the Indian bishops' conference said in a statement on Aug. 15.
Economic and collateral losses to people and their livelihoods are huge, though still need to be effectively calculated, it said, appreciating "the quick and efficient relief work" undertaken by the government and other agencies.
When the crisis is over, the causes of flooding should be analyzed to take "urgent steps to preserve our environment and prevent further ecological damage to our common home, Mother Earth," said the statement signed by conference secretary-general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas.
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