[SRINAGAR] It was not easy convincing my wife Roshan to move out of our home and go to a higher ground when our city, Srinagar was about to get flooded. Like most residents of this city, the capital of Kashmir, she believed that the flood warnings were exaggerated. “We’ve never had any flood in decades,” she argued, brushing aside my scepticism born of years of reporting on environmental issues and apathetic governance in a strife-torn state.
Finally, with the waters of the Jhelum River lapping around the neighbourhood, Roshan relented and began to pack up. On 6 September she moved with our four-year-old son to Sopore town, 45 kilometres to the north. The next day I had just about enough time to move a few things upstairs before wading out through knee-deep water, which later submerged the ground floor of our home.
The flood knocked out communication systems and electricity supplies in Srinagar and also in most parts of Kashmir, making it difficult for any journalist to function. After five days of being ensconced in the safety of a relative’s home, I ventured out to the affected areas using one of the few boats available. People were perched on rooftops crying out to be rescued for fear that their homes would soon be completely submerged. Others were waving desperately at the helicopters flying overhead, which were dropping off food packets. I saw one person grabbing desperately a food packet, falling into the swirling water and drowning.
Apart from fear, the other human emotion on display was anger. Some muttered that the government’s rescue teams were more interested in helping tourists, politicians and bigwig officials than ordinary people. Real boats were in short supply as most had been moved to south Kashmir, which was inundated two days before the waters began to rise in Srinagar. Hundreds of young people began putting together boats made out of anything that would float – essentially planks or plywood boards strapped to oil barrels, polyurethane sheets or even sacks filled with empty plastic bottles.
Some rafts were slightly more sophisticated. Mehraj Mushtaq and his friends strapped wooden planks onto empty oil barrels while others managed with inflated tyre tubes or plastic canisters.
“They say, necessity is the mother of invention,” Afaq Ahmad, who studies graduate-level science in a city college, told me. “We made rafts out of whatever floatable material was available to help people,” he said. Along with two of his friends, Afaq made several rafts out of plywood, rope and plastic foam sheets, each of them capable of taking on board five-seven people.
I learned later that these young people with makeshift rafts had managed to rescue at least 500 people marooned on rooftops and save thousands of others from starvation.
As desperation grew, some kept their rafts afloat with anything that would trap air such as plastic bottles, football tubes and canisters. Within hours, the strangest craft imaginable were to be seen plying through Srinagar, rescuing marooned people and distributing food packets.
“Four angels came in a make-shift boat and asked me what I needed urgently for my hospital,” said Farah Akhtar, deputy medical superintendent at Srinagar’s maternity hospital. “I desperately needed candles and biscuits and they were back in a jiffy with these and other items.”
The candles, Akhtar told me, came in handy “as we were able to perform six birth surgeries under candle-light since the generators were submerged along with vital medical equipment.”
There were many such stories of selfless service in Srinagar during the bleakest days (7 - 20 September) of the worst flood in Kashmir’s recorded history. The lesson for Srinagar’s beleaguered residents is that self-help is really the best help.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.