Sunday, September 5, 2010

Flood-hit Indians face the threat of harsh Himalayan winter

Thousands of flood-displaced people in India's Himalayan region will have to spend the harsh winter season without homes, mainly due to a scarcity of labour and difficulties in getting construction supplies to the remote area, said aid workers.
Heavy monsoon rains last month triggered flash flooding and landslides which killed around 200 people -- demolishing hundreds of houses, blocking roads and destroying bridges - in Leh town, a popular tourist spot in Jammu and Kashmir state.
Aid workers estimate up to 25,000 people in Leh and over 30 surrounding villages have been by affected the monsoonal deluge and thousands have sought refuge in relief camps.
Leh, situated in the remote mountainous region of Ladakh, is a popular tourist destination due to its old Buddhist monasteries and adventure sports like white water rafting.
The town -- which is also at high risk from earthquakes -- is only accessible through two main roads, both of which are annually closed down by authorities over the winter period until January due to the threat of avalanches caused by heavy snowfall.
Aid workers say they will not be able to source all their construction materials locally and that the closure of the two main highways will mean supplies from outside will not be able to reach Leh.
Some aid workers say at a most basic level, "winter-proofing" people may be one solution until spring.
"I think providing winter tents which are of a better material, giving out blankets and warm clothing such as sweaters will be one option," said John Roche, head of the India delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
"The government is also looking at identifying public buildings like schools which they can use to shelter people over the winter period."
Other aid workers add that the government could rent out the numerous rooms available in hundreds of guesthouses in the town, which are vacant over the winter period, and provide them to the displaced.
While other relief groups are advocating for temporary pre-fabricated structures made from concrete, cement and steel to be built.
But while many agree building whole permanent houses is impossible, some charities say a step towards that would be less costly and more suited to the cultural needs of the community.
"We think building some form of permanent housing -- suited to the needs of the indigenous people -- would be the best solution and could still be possible," said Anshu Sharma of SEEDS India, humanitarian organisation which specialises in post-disaster housing.
"Even if we build just one room with proper insulating materials such as mud and stone, which is used locally, people could expand on that when spring comes."

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