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The untold story of India's floods

by Alex Klaushofer | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 29 August 2008 15:03 GMT

The humanitarian needs created by the worst floods in the eastern Indian state of Bihar for 50 years are outstripping government and agencies' ability to cope, aid workers say.

A week ago, the Kosi river in neighbouring Nepal burst its banks and forged a new course through Bihar, submerging hundreds of villages in the five districts of Supaul, Madhepura, Sharsa, Madhubani and Bhagalpur. According to the latest estimates, over 2 million people have been displaced and a quarter of a million homes have been destroyed.

With their crops and food supplies gone, most of those affected are in desperate need of food aid. While the government has set up four basic camps for some of the displaced, there is also a pressing need for shelter, clean drinking water and sanitation.

Heywood Hadfield, emergency programme co-ordinator at HelpAge International, is working with partner HelpAge India to help assess the needs during the early stages of the rescue and relief effort.

"It's an incredibly serious situation," he says. "The information is scanty, but they feel it's at least as serious as the floods last year.Â?

While other parts of India are prepared for the high waters brought by the annual monsoon, this sudden emergency took government and aid agencies by surprise. "It's an area that's not used to flooding. It's not flooded for at least 50 years, so people are not prepared for it," Hadfield says.

With many villages still cut off and the numbers of the displaced growing, it is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of people affected. But according to Aditi Kapoor, advocacy and media manager for Oxfam India, the bulk of the rescue work remains to be done.

"The majority of people still need to be reached," she says. "There are some areas which are still completely cut off, where the water is between 10-15 feet."

"The need is definitely more than what the government and a few aid agencies are able to provide," she says, adding that the government Â? which has called floods a "national calamity" - has appealed for help from national and international non-governmental organisations.

Speaking to AlertNet from one of the affected areas in the district of Araria, Mufti Riyaz, project coordinator for Save the Children India, says locals believe the government is under-estimating the numbers of people affected.

"People on the ground say it is definitely higher than the estimates," he says, citing an official figure that 100,000 people still need to be rescued. "The rescue operation is very slow.

"Eye witnesses say there are so many people who are missing. People are just drowning in the water."

He also points to a widening gap between the numbers of people in need of aid and the provision available. With the government rescuing around 2,000 people a day, according to its own figures, the numbers of people needing help are growing day by day.

"They need shelter and food, and right now they (the government) are not ready for this number of people."

Aid agencies are attempting to meet as many of the immediate needs as possible by distributing emergency food packs, tarpaulin for shelter and water purification tablets. They say that certain groups, such as older people and women with children, have difficulty in fleeing the rising waters and are particularly vulnerable.

More helicopters and motor boats to pull people out of the water are also needed, both agencies and authorities say.

Meanwhile, concern is mounting that, with the rains still falling and the floodwaters continuing to rise, more and more people will be affected over the coming weeks.

"The reach has been widening and more areas are coming under water. We are racing against time," says Oxfam's Kapoor. "In 15-20 days, there will be seven districts that will be affected."

But in stark contrast to India's Monsoon floods last year, when the media beamed images of the suffering around the world, it seems the floods of 2008 risk becoming one of the year's untold aid stories.

"I'm absolutely staggered that it's not higher profile news," says Hadfield. "It's almost as if it's because it's happening every year. Even though it's affecting millions of people, it's not making the news. I find that quite sad."

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