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India

Kashmir struggles as devastating floods return

At least 16 dead already, just seven month after last inundation destroyed region

Umar Shah, Srinagar

Umar Shah, Srinagar

Updated: April 01, 2015 09:43 PM GMT
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Kashmir struggles as devastating floods return

Women mourn for those killed in a landslide earlier this week. (Photo by Umar Shah)

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For the second time in less than a year, aid workers have descended on the Kashmir Valley in Jammu and Kashmir state to assist thousands affected by large-scale flooding.

Just seven months after the region witnessed destruction and loss of lives due to ravaging waters, residents are once again battling incessant rains. At least 16 people have been killed in landslides this week while many more are in danger of injury, illness and death.

Schools have been ordered closed and the government postponed examinations, scheduled for this week.

“Nature has again tested us and it is we who have to play our role,” Mohammad Ayaz, an aid worker, told ucanews.com.

"It is not me alone but there are hundreds of volunteers who are helping survivors.”

Ayaz worked with a team of 250 people, including government employees, sportsmen, medics and students, that helped people in the floods that ravaged the valley in September last year.

The floods, which saw the water level rise to three meters, claimed over 250 lives and damaged property worth billions of dollars. A large number of people lost their homes and businesses and took shelter in relief camps. In total, 390 villages were completely submerged in water.

Ayaz has again chipped in to provide medicines and food to people who are fleeing their homes in fear of floods.

“Whatever is needed, we have resolved to help the victims of floods. We also provide assistance to the government for evacuating people,” he said.

The Indian Metrological department has termed the next 48 hours as “crucial” for the valley.

“From April 3 [ Friday] there will be more rains and there are also chances of cold wind, cloudburst, thunderstorm and even snowfall in hilly areas,” LS Rathore, director of the Indian Metrological Department, told ucanews.com.

He said that the MET department has alerted the state government about the situation.

As rains continued to lash the Himalayan region over the past several days, it has not only put on alert the state government which is striving to avert the re-emergence of the scenes of last year, but also sent shock waves across villages who lost everything in the last floods.

As the water rises in the Jhelum River, which devastated Kashmir last year, people living along its banks have begun to move towards higher ground while leaving their homes and valuables behind.

“What we have learned from the past is what we are doing now. We don’t want to get stuck in troubled waters again. The lives of children are more precious than my house,” said Abdul Rahman Rather, who along with his family has taken refuge in a relief camp, after government sounded a red alert across the capital city of Srinagar.

Witnessing the huge rush of people leaving their homes behind, the government established relief camps in office buildings to provide them shelter.

“There are around 300 families who evacuated initially and the number is increasing as people have the images of the previous floods imprinted on their minds. We are providing assistance to these people,” Farooq Ahmad Lone, deputy commissioner of Srinagar, told ucanews.com.

For Akbar Lone and his family, moving back to a relief camp has been traumatic. A resident of Srinagar, he lost his two-story house in the September floods and since then has been struggling to put his life back together.

A rickshaw driver by profession, Lone said life has again become difficult for him.

“I was hopeful that I will put my livelihood back on track but the current situation will again snatch what I had rebuilt after September last year,” he said.

Haja Begum, whose husband drowned in flood waters last year, also had to take refuge in a relief camp along with her children. She says she can not sleep properly in the camp as the memories of last year continue to traumatize her.

For children, the present situation has had an especially damaging impact — many are experiencing emotional troubles and difficulty sleeping.

Saira, a 13-year-old girl, wakes up suddenly during most nights and starts crying. “I see in my dreams that water has come to this place and we have got submerged in it. As I cry for help, I find no one around.”

Experts are of the opinion that the re-occurrence of floods after just seven months is due to very high groundwater levels all over the Kashmir Valley attributed to last year’s extreme flooding and the rains in March. 

Shakil Ahmed Ramshoo, head of the earth sciences department in Kashmir University, said flood control infrastructure in the state is frail and fragile and the flood channels might well start leaking.

“Both the Jehlum and the flood channels have lost carrying capacity due to extensive siltation, encroachments and pollution. The carrying capacity of our flood channels have come down from 17,000 to 5,000 [cubic feet per second] of water and it's the same case with the river. No proper de-slitting and dredging has taken place for many years,” Ramshoo said.

The business community too has grown worried as it is only just recovering from the past destruction. 

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir said the business community suffered a colossal loss of one trillion rupees (US$16 billion) in last year's floods.

However, according to an initial assessment by the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, last year's floods caused an immediate loss of over US$50 billion from heavy damage to trade, hotels, restaurants, horticulture and handicraft as well as power, railways and communication.

The latest floods may well break the economy’s back in an already cash-starved state.

For Hilal Ahmad Beigh, a local shopkeeper in Srinagar who rebuilt his damaged shop after last year’s floods, it will be difficult for him to survive if he is hit again.

“I would move to some other place but will not do business in Kashmir,” he said.

“With every rainfall now, we know we are on the brink of disaster. It is indeed difficult now to set up business in this region,” echoed Manzoor Ahmad Dar, who owns a garment shop in Srinagar.

Meanwhile, the state government has sought federal assistance for expanding the capacity of flood channels.

Mir Javed Jaffer, chief engineer at Irrigation and Flood Control, told ucanews.com that one of the important points the state government put forward before the federal government was to expand the capacity of flood spill channels.

“If the project is approved, we can cope with flood situations,” he said.

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