Chiplun, Maharashtra, India – At least 209 people are confirmed dead due to floods caused by the heavy monsoon rainfall since July 22 in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
Ratnagiri and Raigad, the two coastal districts in the state’s Konkan region, were the worst hit, reporting 130 of the total deaths in floods and landslides.
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Ratnagiri’s Chiplun and Raigad’s Mahad bore the maximum brunt of the disaster, forcing Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to visit the two towns on Sunday.
“We are standing with you to ensure you get back up on your feet,” assured CM Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray while comforting the traders and shopkeepers in the Chiplun market. pic.twitter.com/rr6Mnn08Aq
— CMO Maharashtra (@CMOMaharashtra) July 25, 2021
The floods are reminiscent of a similar catastrophe that hit the region in 2005, killing more than 1,000 people, including nearly 500 in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, alone.
But residents in Chiplun, home to about 150,000 people, say the tragedy this year was worse.
“The 2021 floods were 10 times deadlier than the 2005 floods,” 58-year-old Vrunda Gandhi from Chiplun’s Peth-Maap area told Al Jazeera.
Chiplun is located at the foothills of the Sahyadri mountain range in the Konkan region, with two sides of the town surrounded by Vashishthi and Shiv rivers.
The Arabian Sea is barely 25km (15 miles) away, making the area prone to water coming in from the rivers’ tributaries as well.
Moreover, excess water from the Koyna Dam, one of Maharashtra’s largest – some 90km (56 miles) away, arrives in a reservoir close to Chiplun and gets mixed with the Vashishthi River.
So, the town gets choked from all sides if there is excessive rainfall during the monsoons.
Pravin Pawar, a senior government official in Chiplun, told Al Jazeera the area received 450mm (17.7 inches) of rainfall in a single day on July 22. For comparison, the highest single-day rainfall recorded in the capital, New Delhi, in the last 15 years was 144mm (5.7 inches) in 2016.
How the floods started
The people in Chiplun went to sleep on the night of July 21 amid the relentless downpour. At about 3am the next day, WhatsApp messages started alerting people of water levels rising in the coastal town.
Vaibhav Chavan, 42, says he began warning the local municipal office at about 1.30am. He alleges no steps were taken to alert the sleeping residents.
“By 5am, water started seeping into people’s houses. It was only then that some people started waking up to find 5-6 feet [1.5-1.8 metres] of water outside their homes,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The situation turned chaotic … By the morning, there was almost 13-15 feet [4-4.6 metres] of floodwater, and the people were stuck inside their homes.”
In such a scenario, India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is usually assigned to rescue people from flooded areas.
But the residents say the NDRF did not arrive in Chiplun for more than 24 hours of flooding, while the local police could not start any rescue operation as they lacked the tools.
“We kept waiting for any help to arrive from the government, but that didn’t happen. The local boys helped my family reach a safe place,” said Gandhi, whose house is on the ground floor.
Pawar told Al Jazeera the water current was so strong that no rescue operation could have been done as the “boats were being turned because of the water flow”.
For a full day, there was no clarity on the situation as rising waters did not allow anyone to enter the town.
Reports say at least eight COVID-19 patients admitted to a private hospital in Chiplun died as a power outage shut the oxygen machines and there was no diesel available to switch on the generator.
The medical staff at the hospital allegedly ran away from the scene fearing attacks by the relatives of the patients who had died.
Residents spent the night in fear as water continued to drown the town, with some local volunteers helping the community.
Raju Vikhare, 53, said saving his and his family’s life became his only priority after a point.
“We thought we would die. When I took my family to a neighbour’s two-story house, the water was reaching my neck. As I started going back, I realised I cannot go on top of the house since I could slip easily from the roof and fall right into the floodwater,” he told Al Jazeera.
An NDRF team finally arrived at about 8am on July 23, say the residents, nearly 26 hours after the floods hit.
Since Chiplun is on the foot of the Sahyadri, the water flows downhill. So the floodwaters had gone down by the time the NDRF team arrived.
But the devastating floods have left heaps of mud that has not been cleared a week after the disaster, which destroyed dozens of houses and businesses, and made nearly 1,000 people homeless in Chiplun.
Sahil Takale, who owns an electronics store in the town, estimated his losses at $235,000.
“I lost six warehouses and one big showroom full of electronic goods. We tried walking in the floodwater to try and save some [sections] of our shop, but it was not possible at all,” he said.
Takale said the insurance of his businesses can salvage a percentage of the loss. “We are OK, but there are many small businessmen in the city who don’t buy insurance. Only God knows how they will emerge from this tragedy.”
The entire market in Chiplun looked as if it had no roads, with the entire surface turning brown due to mud.
Residents say the flood in Chiplun was worsened by Koyna Dam releasing millions of gallons of water.
“We understand that the dam needs to release water, but at least make us aware and don’t surprise us like this in the middle of the night,” local politician Faisal Kaskar told Al Jazeera.
But experts find it hard to believe that only water released from the dam could cause destruction of this level.
Pankaj Dalwi, environmentalist and founder of Konkan Alert NGO, says an “unparalleled deforestation” and absence of urban planning measures were the prime reasons for the “man-made disaster”.
“There has been immense amount of earth-moving and tree-cutting for the purpose of the new Mumbai-Goa National Highway and Pune-Bijapur state highway. This deforestation led to the water bodies changing their routes and seeping into the cities,” Dalwi told Al Jazeera.
Dalwi said Chiplun used to be a wetland area, but in the past 10-15 years, there has been the construction of residential societies on those lands.
“Chiplun did not follow any urban policy guidelines and ignored the environmental impact of the constructions on these wetlands,” he said.
Pawar agreed with the claims. “We have to accept it. This is due to climate change.”