Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Early monsoon rains flood Himalayan foothills

The earliest monsoon on record has flooded parts of Uttarakhand state in northern India, causing over 150 confirmed deaths. Thousands have been stranded by dozens of rain triggered landslides, and the rains have washed away roads and over 20 bridges. The annual pilgrimage to the source of Ganga at Gangotri was disrupted, as the whole valley has now been cut off by a landslide, with an estimated 12,000 people stranded. The nearby town of Kerdarnath was also reportedly struck by a two storey high wave of water, mud and ice, after part of an overlying glacier failed amidst torrential rains, and is apparently strewn with bodies. Overall, an estimated 65,000 people have been cut off and an unknown number killed in the state.

The areas of Rishikesh (of Beatles guru fame) and Haridwar (home to one of Hinduism's 5 main 'popes' and one of four sites for the Khumba Mela) have also been badly affected. Since many remote areas are cut off, the death toll is likely to rise steeply (probably into the thousands), and the many roads that have been washed away make rescue work difficult. Authorities announced that 8 villages in one district seem to have been entirely washed away. The Indian air force and army are doing their best to rescue those stranded, using army lorries and helicopters.

Deforestation and illegal sand mining are thought to have made the floods worse, but nearly 30 Cm of rain fell on the headwaters of the Ganges last Sunday, and more monsoon downpours are on the way. The rains arrived a full month earlier than usual, at a time when people felt safe to travel or go on the annual pilgrimage, which culminated amidst disaster on Tuesday. Residents of the mountains are used to such events, but the scale is unprecedented and the timing means that no one had completed their usual preparations for the rainy season. Delhi has also seen floods, and many stranded tourists had to be rescued from the Manali area in Himachal Pradesh.

Image credit: AP.

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