August 9, 2006

Indian Floods Worsen, 4.5 Million People Homeless

AHMEDABAD, India -- Swollen rivers swamped thousands of villages and towns across India's south and west on Wednesday, forcing 4.5 million from their homes as rescuers struggled to bring them food and drinking water, officials said.

India's annual monsoon rains -- vital for the country's agriculture-driven economy -- have triggered floods across at least five states since the weekend, killing around 200 people, submerging villages and causing widespread damage to crops.

In the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, military boats and helicopters continued to reach out to thousands who remained marooned on trees and rooftops, many without food and water, after rivers burst their banks and flooded homes.

In Gujarat, scores of villages and the industrial town of Surat, known for its diamond-cutting and textile trades, went without power as floodwaters inundated the region, leaving around three million people homeless.

"We screamed out when we saw the soldiers, they saved our lives," said Mulji Devalia, a Surat resident, whose two-story house was completely submerged by floodwaters.

Indian television channels said 90 percent of the town was submerged and showed pictures of people wading through waist-high water and vehicles almost totally submerged.

Officials said phone lines were down and there was an acute shortage of drinking water. Full-scale relief operations would begin once water levels receded, the officials added.

"It is very tough to reach out to the needy, the water level is rising minute by minute," said local administrator Vatsala Vasudev.

Industrial production has been badly affected in the nearby coastal city of Hazira, with Oil and Natural Gas Corp.'s gas plant flooded and production disrupted at a petrochemicals complex run by Reliance Industries Ltd.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, some 6,000 villages have been flooded, leaving around 1.5 million homeless and forcing thousands into trees and onto rooftops.

"We haven't eaten for three days and the children are crying because of hunger and thirst," one resident of a flood-affected village told Reuters by telephone.

Other stranded villagers said they were suffering from fever, diarrhea and vomiting.

"The situation is terrible. The area under submergence is increasing every hour due to the backwaters," said M. V. P. C. Sastry, a senior flood official, adding that military helicopters were dropping food packets and water rations to the marooned.

In many areas, villagers were taking turns through the night to watch over water levels. At least 350 villages had been completely cut off.

Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress party, was expected to visit the flood-affected areas in the state on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expected to tour Gujarat and Maharashtra the following day.

(Reporting by S. Radha Kumar in HYDERABAD, Rupam Jain Nair in AHMEDABAD and Krittivas Mukherjee in MUMBAI)