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The suffering of communities in the north of India

As the world’s attention is focused on Pakistan, heavy rains and flooding are also bringing misery to neighbouring countries. In the northern state of Uttarakhand in India, more than 60 people are reported to have died recently in flood waters and landslides. Thousands have fled their homes as the rivers burst their banks, destroying buildings and roads and Indian security forces have been sent to help with the rescue effort. This latest tragedy comes after 18 children were killed in August in the village of Sumgarh in Uttarakhand, when their school building collapsed after heavy monsoon rains.

Flood waters have also left a trail of damage in the state of Bihar. The Gandak river overflowed and swept away many hundreds of homes and destroying vast swathes of crops. An estimated 30,000 hectares of rice, maize and sugarcane have been affected. And in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the main region for sugarcane, at least 50,000 hectares are believed to be under water. India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar and any loss to the output in these regions will cause severe difficulties for already impoverished families.

India regularly suffers from floods, which kill nearly 2,000 people each year and causes losses of 575 million dollars annually. Flooding is often caused by poor regulation of water levels during the monsoon season. Sometimes huge volumes of water are released from dam reservoirs with little warning to locals downstream.

It is therefore little wonder that communities in the north are expressing grave concerns over future dam projects. The government has plans to build 168 hydroelectric dams over the next 10 years, many in the remote Himalayan region. Local farmers and fisherman are worried how the dams will be regulated, as well as having concerns the dams will affect livelihoods with reduced water levels in certain months of the year impacting on fish stocks and farmland irrigation.

Environmentalists are also concerned because the north of India is an active seismic zone. One project – the Lower Subansiri dam – is being constructed along the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states. This area was hit by an 8.6 magnitude earthquake in 1950 and some are worried the dams will not be able to withstand this kind of seismic event.

The government admits that past projects have not been environmentally sensitive or taken into account the local concerns of communities. But the environment minister insists the government understands “livelihood issues are important”, even though it must consider “the bigger picture” of India’s electricity needs for a growing economically.

Following the recent disasters, it is to be hoped the government continues to be aware of all the difficulties faced by poor families in the north and particularly by those families who have lost homes and livelihoods.

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