Floods in the shadow of the Himalaya

I’m told that the mountains of the Himalaya are still growing; the tectonic plates, moving slowly but with continental force, thrust more and more sharp fragments of land skywards every day. The flight from Delhi to Leh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India sets the scene. Peak after peak, connected by a web of jagged ridges, stretches into the distance, each one trying to break through the thick layer of frozen snow draped over it.

It’s into one of the deep valleys that the plane swoops and descends, with worrying speed. Only a few pilots are trained for this approach and, on this particular flight, two turns are made — the wing tips almost brushing the snow off nearby mountain tops — before the pilot is happy with the conditions; or maybe he just wanted another look at the view before touching down. Sandwiched between the mighty Himalaya and Karakorum mountain ranges, Leh Town looks like a matchbox creation, the plaything of a child who has moved on to more mature pursuits.

But the monumental beauty of this area was echoed by a fierce and deadly display of Mother Nature’s power earlier this year. On 5 August 2010, between the towns of Leh and Kargil, a ‘cloudburst’ resulted in a huge deluge of rain. The flood water was channelled down the steep valley sides into gorges, which usually only have to carry glacier melt water. The floods shifted huge amounts of earth down hill, along with tonnes of water and enormous boulders. Homes, schools, hospitals, and bridges were destroyed. About 200 people were killed, and many are still missing.

A school damaged by the floods - others fared far worse

Save the Children responded immediately, and in the first few weeks over 1800 relief kits were distributed, which included basic life-saving items, and materials to help families regain their lives. But, as ever in emergencies, the more complete and comprehensive a response, the better. Two weeks after the floods, Save the Children agreed a project with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).

A Save the Children/ECHO distribution in Igoo village, Leh

This project focussed on the 400 most-affected families across Leh and Kargil. Under this ECHO project, each family received:

  • tools and materials to help rebuild their homes
  • a set of thermals for each family member
  • a stove.

Also, each family was engaged in a Cash-for-Work programme, which ensured that households had some money coming in after the floods hit.

Over three months have passed now since the floods, and much of the relief elements of the response have been concluded — but the work doesn’t end there. For instance, many schools were destroyed or damaged, and many days’ of education were lost. To ensure that the rights of Ladakhi children to education are not denied, Save the Children has a project to rebuild seven schools across the region.

Also, according to the local government, 660 hectares of agricultural land has been badly damaged and, in its present state, isn’t cultivable. To make sure that families have access to sustainable livelihoods, Save the Children also has a project to help communities to clear the flood-debris away from agricultural land, so that planting can take place in spring 2011. A huge amount of work has been done by agencies like Save the Children, the government and the communities themselves. But a huge amount of work still needs to be done in this transition / rehabilitation stage to ensure that the people of Leh and Kargil can return to their normal lives in this beautiful part of India.

A mother and child in Igoo village

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