United with Uttarakhand

Imagine second after second collapsing on your shoulders like boulders of hopelessness. Imagine the security of your life escaping from your reach, sliding out from underneath your feet, literally. You try to escape your imploring home immediately realizing you will never return. The last sight of your family was shrieks in the darkness. Imagine the sun rising with an opportunity for protection but setting after an excruciating extension of the concept you once beheld as hours. The night fights against the security that you will live to see tomorrow. Imagine the cold of the mountains seeping into your core with every additional second of the night like frozen nitrogen. The stability of every part of the landscape is not guaranteed and even the sky seems like it is going to implore, imagine. But that’s all we can do, imagine.

Thousands of people in Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, and Chamoli have woken up to a nightmare. They’re facing the struggle for survival in the wilderness of the Himalayas with little to no resources, corpses in their surroundings, and the increasing possibility of disease. The photographs that circulate the media immobilize me. These are the homes, temples, and villages of people similar to those we’ve had the privilege of meeting out in the field.

Those same three days of rain were days of leisure for us. We were stuck indoors learning to knit, finishing books, sharing stories, watching movies… time was an infinite space we filled with learning and relaxation. We knew it would negatively affect many families, but on Sunday, June 16th, a group of interns came back soaked and shocked with stories that made it clear the results would be much worse. A group had left on Friday to check some of the springs in Sualbarry. Little did they know that they would be returning in the middle of the monsoon watching pieces of the mountains slide down onto the roads blocking their way home. They told us about their fear of driving through the wrong place at the wrong time and getting buried under debris. They also brought back with them the first hint of news, "Backpackers are being searched for by helicopters in the Valley of Flowers," "19 people have died," "Entire homes were swept away…"

The apocalyptic atmosphere Jason described earlier has become more real.

"Monsoon mayhem: Although cloudbursts, landslides and flash floods are an annual affair in Uttarakhand, the monsoon of 2013 brought with it such massive loss of lives, property and infrastructure that the state said its development clock had been set back by a decade."

"Uttarakhand set back by three years"

"Uttarakhand floods: Air rescue operations resume, 5000 still await help"

"Saviours lose their own lives: 20 rescuers killed in chopper crash"

"Uttarakhand floods leave trail of death and destruction"

“Uttarakhand floods: Mass cremation of bodies begin in Kedarnath …”

“Kedarnath turns into a ghost town after Uttarakhand floods”

“Uttarakhand floods: Identifying the dead proving to be a daunting task”

But this catastrophe leads us to think about many things. For example, as one article puts it,
“The catastrophe that struck Uttarakhand is an instance of what occurs if nature is exploited beyond what it can endure. The monsoon arrived early and came down heavily. But the destruction was the outcome of the damage done by man, “ and “rampant unauthorized and mindless building activities on the river flood plains in the Himalayas” are the prime causes of the disaster.”

*http://www.dnaindia.com/india/1853147/report-uttarakhand-floods-when-mother-nature-is-hurt;http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/hzKmWekwYOOtYKv8N6dZlN/Dont-blame-nature-for-the-Uttarakhand-flood-disaster.html

The structures that were washed away during the rains are results of building on river beds and flood, mining on river beds for sand and gravel, and diverting forest land for mining. The soil erosion, landslides, and flash floods that occurred during those three days of monsoon rain proved that our solutions for environmental sustainability are actually short-term “solutions” chosen over long-term sustainability.

Despite being here for 5 weeks, I am only starting to get a sense of the involvement of local government in health issues. Today, we’ve interviewed two Accredited Social Health Activities (ASHA) workers who work as community health workers. These are women who take care of different villages and maintain close contact with every home and their health status, but especially focus on maternal health and vaccinations. Either way, their knowledge of families and their hardships in achieving wellbeing really came through at the health camps we attended together. They thanked Chirag’s support and constant work in securing access to safe water and other resources, but were upset at the local “involvement.” I still don’t understand the government in India, in general, and that may be a conversation for chai with some of the Chirag staff. As of now, everyone here knows the government is struggling to rescue the survivors and clean up the mess before an epidemic outbreak and before the monsoon month. It just started to rain and I don’t think I’ve ever been so worried about the rain before.

We’re so close to the areas affected, but with the difficulties in communication it’s been a slow realization of the severity of the monsoon rains. I encourage everyone to read the news online. So many personal stories are shared, as well as the importance of preserving our environment. I feel so helpless being so close, but with 5 weeks left much can be done. Please keep Uttarakhand in your prayers as it faces this difficult time.

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About Nathalie