Notes from the field – Sikkim Earthquake | ActionAid India
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Notes from the field – Sikkim Earthquake

Author: Tom Allen
Posted on: Wednesday, 28th September 2011

Blog posts by Banamallika and Swapan. Both were one of the first groups from NGOs to get across to Sikkim after the earthquake that rocked the himalayan region, leaving a trail of destruction and leaving over a hundred dead. Their assesment has now paved the way for ActionAid response in the region.

Closer to heart of destruction

To collect first hand information from the affected sites of the 18th Sept earthquake that started from Sikkim, we visited North Sikkim, one of the most affected districts.

We started from Gangtok on 20th Sept. On the way we halted at Dikchu in East Sikkim, which is at the barrage site for Teesta 5 hydro power project. We spoke to the locals as well as representatives of Lepcha Youth Welfare Association. One 3 story building has completely collapsed and 3 buildings were uninhabitable from damages developed during the quake. People were taking shelter in makeshift camps, shop verandas by the roadside and under puja pandals. Dikchu town is located between two hydro power projects. The people informed us that their buildings had already become weak from continuous blasts from the project construction. The change of the course of river due to the barrage has also put pressure on the bank by which the town is situated. Massive cracks have developed during the Sept 18th quake between the road and the buildings on the side of the river and they could collapse any moment.

Discovering scale of damage

Next was the North District headquarter at Mangan. Most houses there have developed cracks. The district administration was still not able to establish contact with most of the villages and the sub-divisional headquarter of Chungthang which is claimed to be the most affected location. The road connectivity was completely severed due to landslide and sinking of the road in many places. Helicopter services had started but were focusing mostly on evacuating the dead bodies and rescuing the injured. Telephone and mobile connections were down and complete information was not available. The district control room had received information that: 

Total death toll in North District as on 20th is 39. Of which Chungthang: 10, Lachung: 1 Ramom: 2 Toong: 4 Mangan: 1 Ringkhola: 2Salem Pakel: 11 Bey Pentok: 5 Domang: 1 Lachen: 2 

They also informed us that most houses were damages but they did not have information on the extent.

Access cut-off 

We proceeded to Chunthang on foot. On the way we crossed several landslides and the road has developed major cracks. The army and BRO were working to clear the road. From Mayong after crossing a landslide we traveled by a BRO truck on the other side till Richu (Naga). From there we continued on foot and reached Ship-Giyer through Toong which is about 8 km. On the way we came across about 30 major landslides. In places entire mountain faces had come down along with the road formations. Even foot paths had slipped down in places. It looked like it will take months to repair the road.

We had to halt at Ship-Giyer as it was getting dark and the landslides were getting worse. In the village we were informed that all houses were damaged and people had abandoned their houses and were camping on the village ground out of fear.

On 21st morning we spoke to the villagers, the Panchayat member, the president of the Panchayat. We walked through the village and observed massive damages in all the houses. There are 105 households and 5 houses collapsed completely. Some livestock were lost but the number could not be ascertained. The monastery was in a state of near collapse. They informed that the PDS shop has stock to last about 5 days. The villagers had decided to ration the available stock to make it last longer. Ship-Giyer is completely cut off from both sides from District headquarter (Mangan) and sub-divisional headquarter (Chungthang). The nearby villages of Sapho and Ramom were also completely cut-off and no information was available till then.

We were informed proceeding to Chungthang by road even on foot is not possible due to landslides. We were told we could travel through the tunnel which is being constructed through which the river Teesta will be diverted for the 1200 MW Teetsa 3 hydro powerproject. We travelled on a project truck through the tunnel for around 8 km to reach Chungthang at 7pm. It was already dark. Mobile connectivity was claimed restored but calls could not get through.

Reduced to rubble

All buildings had developed major damages and some were totally collapsed. People abandoned houses and were taking shelter in several relief camps. There is scarcity of water as the water supply was cut off. Only the camps were supplied water through tankers. Few shops that were open were running out of essential commodities like candle, match boxes, water, salt etc.

On 22nd, we walked around the town to find the entire town destroyed.

We visited the camp at the Tasa Thengay Secondary school premises where about 200 people are taking shelter. People are eating at the Gurudwara where langars are organized every day by the Gurudwara and local people. On the Gurudwara premises at least 300 people are taking shelter for the night. The camp holds langars 3 times a day where about 600 people are fed at each meal. People are staying on the veranda of the Gurudwara building and makeshift tents. The tents are not waterproof and it has no side covering. We spoke to few people living in the camp who informed us that severe winter cold that the region experiences will arrive soon. They are worried about the children and the women’s health and ability to cope with the situation. There is no milk or baby food for the children. Water shortage is also a problem as although there is water to drink there is no water to wash and clean.

Taking stock

We met the food inspector in charge of food and civil supply who informed that from today (22nd Sept) army helicopters will start carrying food supply from Gangtok. The only concern is to reach it to the nearby villages which are cut off.

We met with the BDO and SDM who informed us that 10 bodies were recovered, 5 were feared to be dead and under debris, and of total 90 houses 25 are uninhabitable. In nearby Pegong village 35 houses have been damaged of which 8 houses are uninhabitable. Lachen and Lachung are still not accessible due to landslides. More than 80 slides were reported on each side (Lachen and Lachung). Food crisis is feared. There is a plan to start airdropping supply immediately. Administration is concentrating right now on recovering of the dead bodies and providing basic relief to the people.

NDRF personnel arrived in the morning for the first time to rescue dead bodies and demolish some buildings which are posing danger.  Banking system is not working due to collapse of connectivity which has added to the crisis. All 3 schools (2 private and 1 govt.) in Chungthang are closed as one school building collapsed and 2 were severely damaged. It will take at least 3 weeks to open.

Our Observations

Food supply seems to be adequate at the moment. Supply is possible only through air. Supply to nearby villages is still a concern. Airdropping is the only possibility for supplying food to these villages. Bad weather conditions are also hampering supply at times.

Rehabilitation of people could take months. Under these circumstances both the administration and people fear that they might have to live in the camps for at least a month or more. In which case, nutritional intake is a concern particularly for children and pregnant and lactating women as they are given only rice and dal. Shortage of cooking fuel like LPG and kerosene is also a concern. Water is being supplied from the nearby streams and is not pottable. There is need for water purification.

The drainage system has been blocked and septic tanks were broken which have resulted in unhygienic conditions through the town. Health although at moment is not a major concern, over long term people living in relief camps could create conditions of lack of immunity and disease. The camps require immediate supply of water proof material to save them from rain and the cold. The houses which have developed cracks but are in repairable condition need to be protected from water seepage to prevent further damage. This too requires immediate waterproof material. The houses need to be inspected by experts to assess their damage technically and suggest whether the houses can be reoccupied, repaired or need complete demolition. Experts will also be required to provide sound suggestions to ensure safety of the repairs needed.  

Concerned people also suggested that geological experts should observe the entire region to assess the geological damages done and see if the places are safe for habitation. They fear there could be some geological damages that could be dangerous for people to live altogether.

Most of the persons who died are workers from the hp project. Many of the workers are fleeing Chungthang and other sites in hundreds. Many are still stranded and are living in camps. They have not been able to get in touch with their families and are afraid to stay there longer.

23rd September 2011

We have reached Gangtok and the local daily Sikkim Express reports the death toll to have risen to 75. In North District the number is 57. Many are feared to be under debris still.