Gauchar Air Base, India – Taking off his olive green helmet and sitting down in a plastic chair surrounded by sacks of food, helicopter pilot Sachin Gupta gave the bad news.
“It’s not going to happen today, I’m afraid. It’s too risky to fly. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow, and even then it’s not assured that we’ll be able to get the relief supplies to Gaurikund,” the Indian Air Force wing commander said.
Poor weather meant about 350 survivors of flash floods living near the Indian Himalayan town of Gaurikund would have to wait a bit longer for a helicopter to fly in rations of rice, flour and lentils.
Stranded after flash floods and landslides, survivors were not only running out of food for themselves, but also fodder for the few remaining weakened livestock that their children depend on for milk.
|Military deployed to rescue India flood victims|
But the weather, mountainous terrain and damaged infrastructure have plagued efforts to deliver aid to tens of thousands of people living in remote hill-top villages in Uttarakhand state, where heavy rains last month caused the deadliest disaster recorded in the region.
“We are dealing with the most dangerous terrain and most unpredictable weather in the world,” said Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, who heads rescue and relief operations for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
“One minute it is clear to fly, the next you can’t see more than a couple of feet ahead of you due to fog or heavy rains. There is a lot of pressure and frustration. You know you need to get rations to people or evacuate them, but all you can do is watch the skies.”
Two helicopters have crashed in the rescue and relief operation, including an IAF chopper that went down in Gaurikund, killing the 20 service personnel on board. The Mi-17 chopper was returning from delivering logs for a mass cremation of corpses found under the debris in the aftermath of the disaster.
The calamity – come to be known as India’s “Himalayan tsunami” because of the torrent of water unleashed by burgeoning rivers and glacial lakes – has devastated the area that is a popular Hindu pilgrimage destination.
Almost 6,000 people – mostly pilgrims – reported missing have now been presumed dead, while about two million people have had their lives turned upside down, state authorities say.
Many survivors have had their homes and businesses destroyed or farmlands washed away. Whole villages have been left cut off with roads washed away, bridges ripped apart and highways buried under tonnes of mud and boulders.
The landslides are not new things for us, they take a few hours to clear... But to create a new road in a place where the road has completely gone, that will take weeks, if not months.
“Around 200 of my bridges have been washed away, nearly 5,000 roads damaged, connectivity to 4,300 villages snapped, electricity and water supplies disrupted and telephones lines have been down,” Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Now we are working on a war-footing and we are trying to bring back some semblance of normalcy. Wherever there are villages still cut off, we are providing them with free food grain that is being dropped by helicopters.”
But it is not just the air force that is facing serious obstacles to getting relief supplies to people. By land, the delivery of aid is equally precarious.
Trucks laden with sacks of flour, rice and lentils, packets of cooking oil and boxes of biscuits and instant noodles trundle along steep mountain passes of Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts, negotiating hair-pin bends on one side and falling rocks and boulders on the other.
Landslides are commonplace, particularly when it rains, blocking the roads. As a result, queues of relief trucks sent by the government, aid agencies and private companies wait for hours on end, as bulldozers and excavators operated by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) move in to clear roads.
“We clear one, then another one occurs,” said the BRO’s Major Rahul Srivastava, adding there are a daily average of 20 major landslides along the 180km stretch of road he is responsible for.
“The landslides are not new things for us, they take a few hours to clear … But to create a new road in a place where the road has completely gone, that will take weeks, if not months.”
Aid workers’ trek
Where the roads end or are blocked by mounds of earth and rocks, aid workers and local labourers unload whatever they can carry and trek up the mountains to get to the villages.
Some kilometres short of Govindghat town where a major landslide has blocked the road, a group of red-shirted workers from the charity Save the Children trek down a steep hill after distributing hygiene kits, tarpaulin sheets, and dry food rations to scores of rural families.
We are totally dependent on the helicopters. We are stuck here - no one can get out and no one can get in.
“Either our workers are trekking up mountains for up to 5km or we are asking people to come down to where the road ends on a particular day and time so that we can do a distribution,” said Avinash Kumar Singh, Save the Children’s coordinator in Chamoli district.
“Sometimes our aid distributions go as planned, other times heavy rains make it too risky and we have to call it off.”
Even mules, often used in the area to transport goods as well as elderly people and children, are in short supply – hundreds dying in the deluge on June 16 and 17, Singh added.
Back at Gauchar Air Base, the weather clears a few hours later – providing a small window of opportunity for Wing Commander Gupta to risk the drop of supplies at Gaurikund.
As the chopper positions itself to land on the tiny helipad in Gaurikund, scores of villagers anxiously gather below, their clothes flapping furiously in the gusts of wind whipped up by the helicopter’s rotors.
“We are totally dependent on the helicopters. We are stuck here – no one can get out and no one can get in,” said Rajesh Goswami, 36, whose hotel and shop on the banks of the Mandakini river were washed away.
“The rations are welcome. The problem is the wait. We never know if they are coming or not.”
A version of this story first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service