NEW DELHI, Aug. 25 -- Torrential monsoon rains and raging rivers have caused the worst flooding in decades across broad swaths of north India over the past two months, wreaking havoc in the lives of four million to five million people. And this week, sudden violent downpours caused piteous scenes of suffering in south India, as well.
Officials in an Indian Air Force rescue helicopter hovering over the swollen Kandu River on Thursday in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh spotted a woman in swirling, chest-high flood waters. Her baby and young son were clinging to her.
The rescuers lowered a large bucket to her, then watched helplessly as first the older boy, then the infant, slipped through her arms as she struggled to lift them to safety. Then she, too, fell into the turbulent waters. All were swept away.
"The lady could not hold her sons properly, and they slipped from the bucket," Adhar Sinha, the civil servant in charge of the Cuddapah district, said in an interview today. "Then the lady also fell in the flood waters. They all drowned."
Though the rains largely stopped today, and the flood waters slowly receded, the flooding has killed 120 people over the past three days and left a trail of heavily damaged rice paddies, washed-out roads and thousands of heavily damaged homes, state officials said.
The rains in Andhra Pradesh, which dumped a record 9.4 inches of water on the capital, Hyderabad, on Thursday, shocked state officials because weather forecasts had been for only half the amount of rain that fell.
"It just poured," said Randeep Sudan, an adviser to Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, the state's governor. "The roads were like rivers."
While the deluge in Andhra struck with sudden ferocity, northeastern India has endured flooding since late June. From Himachal Pradesh and Bihar into West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, heavy, persistent rains have caused devastation. Assam, already one of the wettest places on earth, has been hardest hit. More than 300 people have died in north India, officials say.
But the rains are not the only culprit in flooding in India and Bangladesh. Relief officials say they believe other factors, including global warming and deforestation, have worsened the problem in recent years. Global warming may be increasing the snow melt from the Himalayas that is carried into India by the rivers.
The cutting of forests has increased soil erosion. That earth has then flowed into the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, among others, settled and raised the level of the river bottom -- and the waters.
Embankments built to contain the rising waters have been more easily breached as a result. The embankments also prevent the rivers from spreading into the broad flood plains where they used to deposit rich soil that fertilized the land. That, in turn, deposits yet more silt on the river bottom. And when these gushing rivers, squeezing between embankments, reach areas without embankments, they are moving even faster and more ferociously than before, causing massive erosion of river banks.
"Whole villages are crumbling into the rivers," said Patrick Fuller, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross in South Asia, based here in Delhi.
Mr. Fuller said the Red Cross had so far raised only about a fifth of the $3.5 million requested in an appeal two weeks ago for flood relief in India.
"People think: 'Oh, floods in India again. It's a perennial problem,' " he said. "But so many people are affected, and they have no choice but to live in these areas. It doesn't take much to tip people into debt. And that's a very difficult cycle to break out of."
Over a million people in Bangladesh have been affected by flooding, but the problem has not been as serious as in 1998.