"I am being rowed through paradise on a river of hell," the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote in his poem, ‘Farewell’. Years ago, it is unlikely the celebrated poet could have thought his words would be a new reality for hundreds of thousands of people in Jammu and Kashmir.
It has been more than two weeks since record monsoon rains buried the homes, farms, schools, and historical landscape of Kashmir. As world leaders meet for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to debate world peace, security and development, receding flood waters are beginning to reveal the scale of death and disease that will threaten the valley’s survival and path to peace.
India and the international community’s poor response to the disaster in Kashmir will exacerbate an imminent health and food crisis for years to come, thereby fueling existing political and social tensions in the volatile region.
Enabling a worse disaster
Is the tragedy that has befallen Kashmir the government’s fault? Of course not. However, the politicization of aid delivery and an impotent rescue and relief response is inexcusable.
More lives can be saved with the help of global water and sanitation experts and an enhanced global partnership for Kashmir’s recovery. To date, United Nations agencies have yet to receive a formal request from India for providing humanitarian assistance to Jammu and Kashmir. Without a formal request and permission, UN agencies are unable to operate. When it comes to natural disaster response, this is not new. Back in 2005, the government stated that it needed no international aid to recover from the violent 8 October earthquake in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.
No climate action
While there is no clear evidence to directly link this disaster to climate-change, the tragic floods are telling of the world’s increasingly volatile weather systems and the vulnerability of developing regions to natural disasters. The need for climate action is now. In this respect, it is disheartening to see that the leaders of China and India, for the moment, will not participate in Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s unprecedentedClimate Summit at the UN this week.
Local and national responses
According to the Press Information Bureau of India, four water purification plants are already working at Rambag, Old Airport Base, Bemina and Rajbagh. Twenty water purification plants have been airlifted from Hyderabad to Srinagar.Tens of thousands of soldiers are engaged in rescue operations in Jammu and Kashmir and claim to have rescued over 300,000 people. My father was one of the lucky ones air lifted out by the Indian Air Force. Domestically, concerned citizens across India are rallying support and sending prayers for Kashmir. These efforts are in direct contrast to actions of trolls online who are inundating the digital social media conversation with claims that Kashmiris are getting what they deserve.
Despite the reported efforts of the army and the National Disaster Response Force, residents of Rajbagh, Sonwar and other areas are speaking of a different reality. According to residents in Srinagar, the local government has yet to provide water pumps and adequate medical care for the worst hit neighborhoods. Two weeks after the disaster, tens of thousands of people remain stranded on the second and third floors of their homes. Human bodies and dead livestock float the murky waters, spreading disease. And 2 million people are in need of clean water, according to Oxfam India.
There has been no clear direction for residents on how to begin the clean-up effort and to stay protected from diseases. Such information materials in the local language are needed to help guide the weary and tired residents of Srinagar to piece their families and lives back together.
Kashmiri youth and local volunteer groups are trying their best to fill in the gaps. Young boys are wading high waters to tie dead bodies to trees so that they can be lifted out. The Kashmiri diaspora is raising tens of thousands of dollars and attempting to send supplies to the valley. Doctors–whose own families are displaced–brave harsh conditions to provide free medical care wherever needed. In the face of chaos and loss, Kashmiris of all religions and classes continue to display heroism and civic duty.
Perhaps the greatest challenges at the moment are mental in nature: fear and uncertainty fed by an utter lack of information and disaster response strategy. For a people that have lost everything, the big question now is: "How will families survive without their homes, their jobs, schools and hospitals?"
Look and listen…
The messages coming out Jammu and Kashmir are clear. They demand international help be allowed in and the transparent distribution of aid money from donors. People are in urgent need of supplies–ranging from clothes to medicines for fending of the increasing threat of diseases such as cholera, gastrointestinal diseases and typhoid. To help protect lives, Kashmiris also request the unobstructed delivery of supplies being sent to the Srinagar airport from concerned citizens and the Kashmiri diaspora, especially ahead of a harsh winter. The local and national leadership should also consult global experts on ways to fortify Kashmir with robust weather forecasting systems, expanded disaster preparedness and sanitation upgrading.
Decades of war, political failures and injustice have slowly eroded many facets of Kashmir, yet in just thirty minutes, the river Jehlum wiped out everything. Nature’s fury, and the global threat of climate change do not care for politics, religion or social class. Nature’s fury can only be answered with humanity and collective action… right here, right now. World leaders at the UN this week would do well to act on this inescapable truth.
* To support relief efforts today and in the months and years to come, you can help these credible organizations: Child Nurture and Relief, Oxfam India, Revive Kashmir and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.