Millions homeless in Indian floods, worse looms
Reuters News Service, Aug. 14, 2000
NEW DELHI - At least 4.5 million people have been made homeless by heavy flooding in India, and much worse could be on its way, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Friday.
"We're talking about water levels that are as high already as the water levels two years ago in the serious floods of 1998, and those were the highest since 1938," said Geoffrey Dennis, head of the federation's South Asian delegation.
"So it's a very serious situation and it's coming earlier this year," he told Reuters in an interview. "It could get a lot worse over the next two weeks and that would just be disastrous."
Dennis said that in the northeastern state of Assam, which has suffered three waves of flooding as well as flash floods since the end of June, a huge river island has been engulfed by water and its 100,000 inhabitants have been forced to flee.
"It's completely inundated with water and all you can see are the tops of some of the trees and the tops of some of the hillocks and nothing else now," he said.
"They've gone onto the mainland now...and they've been put into schools and any buildings that are available, and a lot of them are under tarpaulin in the heavy rains at the moment."
The Geneva-based International Federation launched an appeal on Friday for $3.8 million to assist 200,000 of the most vulnerable victims of flooding in Assam and four other states, Bihar, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh.
The federation said there is a risk of water-borne diseases such as malaria, cholera and gastroenteritis because people in flooded areas had no access to clean drinking water. As yet there have been no reports of epidemics.
EARLY MONSOON RAINS TO BLAME
The subcontinent's annual monsoon arrived early in northeast India this year, bringing floods to Assam from late June.
The situation worsened dramatically this month when flash floods caused by heavy rains in the Himalayas swept south, breaching embankments along many parts of the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries and inundating surrounding areas.
Dennis said climactic change and deforestation were probably also causes of the disaster.
The International Federation said the combined death toll from the floods in the northeast of India alone had risen to over 300, and many more were still unaccounted for.
The worst of the flooding has occurred in Assam, where 10 percent of a state larger in size than the whole of Sri Lanka is under water and 3.1 million people are homeless or marooned.
The swollen river waters have continued downstream to Bangladesh, where one million people have been affected, and there has also been flooding in Bhutan and southeastern Nepal.
Dennis said that because many areas under water are inaccessible the full scale of the humanitarian and economic disaster has yet to emerge.
He said the key areas in which the International Federation will be helping are food, shelter and health and hygiene.
"It's massive. You're talking about four to five million people that have been affected, who have lost their immediate stores of food in their houses and most of them are agricultural people who have lost their crops."
"The rice harvest was due in September and almost all of that I would imagine will go."
Dennis said that, ironically, there are some parts of western India which are still suffering from a drought which gripped several states ahead of the monsoon.
"There are some parts of Rajasthan...that have still not received rain and the water table is lower than it has been for many, many years there," he said. "And you've actually got some places that haven't had any rain for three years."
Story by John Chalmers
South Asia floods leave 1.6 million homeless
Reuters, Aug. 10, 2000
GUWAHATI - Overnight monsoon rain in India's northeast yesterday raised flood waters which are feared to have killed about 300 people in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and made millions homeless.
The final toll could be higher as heavy showers are forecast in the next 24 hours for Assam, India's worst-hit region, where survivors face hunger and disease.
Official figures from the four countries show 184 people have died and 115 gone missing since swollen rivers began gushing off the Himalayas two weeks ago.
Relief officials in Assam said three million people had been displaced and more than 200,000 hectares (490,000 acres) of crop area affected.
"It's worrying that there are huge numbers of people still unable to return to their villages," Patrick Fuller, regional spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters.
"The fear is that if there is sustained rain in the Himalayas we could then see flash floods which will exacerbate the situation," he added. In Assam, hundreds of displaced people were forced to take shelter under trees after heavy rains lashed the region last night.
Desperate for food, several people made crude boats and rafts from banana leaves and fished in flood waters while others cooked on bullock-carts parked by the roadside.
"We have lost everything in floods, our house has been washed away and several tonnes of rice kept in the storehouse were damaged by water," Meena Malakar, a housewife in Assam's Satdola village, said. "Now we have no other option but to go begging."
FEARS OF DISEASE INCREASE
Health and relief officials said they feared an outbreak of diseases like gastroenteritis with several villages still cut off and decomposed carcasses of cows and other animals floating in flood waters.
"We haven't received reports of high numbers of people suffering from water-borne diseases, but there may be people in cut-off villages who could be suffering," Fuller said.
"There is a scarcity of pure drinking water and I am feeding my children with coconut water as a precaution to save them from water-borne diseases," added Dilip Das, a flood victim staying in a makeshift camp in Assam.
Officials said heavy rains in Assam had hit relief and rescue operations.
"The water levels in most rivers were receding for two days but again due to heavy rainfall last night, the rivers are overflowing," Assam's Director (Information) Manoj Deb told Reuters.
The floods have snapped communication links, washed away bridges and railway lines, forcing government authorities to depend on army helicopters and boats for relief missions.
Although rivers in the eastern province of Bihar continued to recede yesterday, officials said the swollen Ganges has inundated several fresh areas in the state.
According to the state's relief and rehabilitation department, 32 people had died in the floods so far, over 1.6 million left homeless and 31,000 cattle drowned.
"The crop damage is estimated to be to the tune of 105 million rupees. Altogether 124,000 hectares of agricultural land are flooded, washing standing crops of banana, sugarcane, tobacco and sunflower," the relief and rehabilitation commissioner said.
In Bihar's Hasanpur village, a poor farm labourer rummaged through the debris of his collapsed hut, trying to pull out the few remaining bricks to rebuild his home.
"Nothing is left and nobody has come to rescue us. We have been given nothing to eat and we are starving," said Bimal Kumar Rai.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE