August 30, 2008

India Declares National Calamity As Millions Flee Flood Disaster

By Andrew Buncombe

It is a landscape of despair. The carcasses of dead animals lie adrift in the flood water, rotting and stinking. Entire villages in one of India's poorest states have been washed away and millions of people have been forced from their homes by the worst flooding in the region for 50 years.

One aerial photograph showed a railway station - seemingly the only piece of land above water for miles in all directions - on to which countless people were crowded. India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has flown over the disaster zone in the eastern state of Bihar and has declared the situation, a "national calamity". He has released 100m for emergency relief.

The death toll stood at 65 last night but that number is expected to rise sharply as aid workers reach all the affected areas. One aid group believes the death toll could hit 2,000. An estimated two million people have already been forced from their homes. Troops dispatched to the worst-hit areas have already helped more than 120,000 people move to emergency camps as fears grow that swollen rivers will continue to flood.

The disaster has struck in a region notorious as one of India's most impoverished and densely crowded. The flooding was caused after the Kosi river burst a dam upstream in Nepal and unleashed huge waves of water that tore south and smashed the mud embankments in Bihar.

In the broken, battered Bihari communities many villagers have been saying prayers and sacrificing goats in order to appease the Kosi, known as the "river of sorrow" because of its flooding and ability to change course. In this instance, the force of the water breaking the dam in Nepal caused the river to move 75 miles east of its original bed. "We are praying to the river goddess and offering her blood since only she can help us", one woman in the Supaul district - one of the worst- affected - told a local newspaper.

The landscape that India's Prime Minister flew over is one of near-helplessness. Some reports claim that half the state is under water. Countless thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed.

Amid this horror, people are surviving in the most wretched conditions and aid agencies have warned of the threat of disease from dirty water, polluted by rotting animal carcasses. Brahmdeo Yadav, a villager in the Saharsa area, described how the community had been reduced to a tiny island amid a landscape of dirty, surging flood water. "We have nothing to cook with so we are soaking this grain in the filth in order to survive," he said.

Despite Mr Singh's promise of considerable aid for the flood- struck areas, there are claims that he is not doing enough. Pappu Yadav, a jailed but influential MP from northern Bihar, wrote to Mr Singh threatening to go on hunger strike if relief did reach those in need by last night.

"I will not have any food and water from 30 August if people of these districts do not get full meals and are not evacuated to safer places," he said.

In the immediate term, aid agencies are scrambling to respond to the floods by distributing food, clothes and medicine. Around 100 temporary relief camps have been set up for the 120,000 so far evacuated but continuing bad weather is slowing down relief operations.

"We have the army, disaster management teams, police and other groups of rescuers making every effort to save the population," said RK Singh, a senior government official involved in the relief effort.

The charity Action Aid said that thousands of people have been reported missing but not yet listed as dead. Meanwhile, countless thousands of people were scrabbling to reach higher ground and abandoning their homes and livestock. With road and rail routes completely blocked, helicopter and boat are the only means to reach people.

But experts have warned that the situation could yet get worse. The peak of the river's annual flooding usually comes in October. The people of Bihar may have more torment ahead.

The monsoon: a cycle of life and death

*In the broadest sense, the floods causing misery and destruction in Bihar are part of an annual cycle of life and death that plays out annually across a swathe of Asia as a result of the monsoon rains.

Vital for irrigating crops and for replenishing lakes and groundwater aquifers on which the huge population depends the rest of the year, the monsoon also brings devastation and death to the region's most impoverished and vulnerable. Before this latest disaster, at least 1,000 people had died in India, Nepal and Bangladesh since this year's rains began.

India's monsoon season normally lasts from June to September, hitting different parts of the country at different times. Some experts have claimed the heavier rains of this year are the result of global warming. Others have said the calamity was the result of a lack of preparedness and a failure to reinforce the dam upstream on the Kosi. What appears certain is that the situation is not getting any better, despite the cyclical nature of the monsoon. In 2007, the floods killed more than 2,200 people and left 31 million homeless, short of food or with other problems. The United Nations said the floods were the worst in living memory.

In large parts of South Asia, the region's poorest people have also fallen victim to rising seas. In much of the Bangladesh delta, rising ocean levels, and erosion caused by glaciers melting at an increased rate, have seen hundreds of thousands of people face the prospect of losing their homes. The UN has predicted that Bangladesh, criss-crossed by more than 200 rivers, will lose 17 per cent of its land by 2050 because of rising sea levels. But other data suggests the country's landmass is increasing because of sediment deposited by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers.

Originally published by By Andrew Buncombe Asia Correspondent, in Delhi.

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