Floods: Time for a rethink

This year in mid-July, the Baghmati, Budhi Gandhak and Lakhandai went into spate in Bihar. In Assam, several districts were engulfed by the waters of the Brahmaputra. Uttarakhand experienced flash floods and waters surged in Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When this issue went to press more than 2,000 people had lost their lives and there was widespread damage to crops and property in what has been described by the UN as worst floods experienced by the country in living memory.

How grave are matters exactly? Have the relief measures been adequate? Could we have done more than arrange ad hoc relief? How adequate is our understanding of floods?

Down To Earth attempts to understand

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Floods: Time for a rethink

Down to EarthLakhinath Chintae is a prosperous farmer in Kamalbari in Assam's Majuli district. But he and his family face a bleak future. The more than 20 hectares (ha) they own have been washed by the recent floods in the state. Elsewhere in Bordolani block in Dhemaji district, Bejia Das has far serious problems. He had borrowed money from a moneylender for his son's education and had promised to pay back with the earnings from this season's harvest, but the floods have put paid to his hopes. "The floods have been unprecedented this year, even by the standards of wet Assam," Chintae says.

Nearly 400,000 ha of cropped land has been lost, though the monetary loss has not yet been calculated. In Dhemaji district, the Brahmaputra river has deposited sand in over 7,000 ha of agricultural land. The Jia-dhal and Gai nadi, flashy rivers arising from the Arunachal hills, have deposited sand over another 5,000 ha rendering the area completely unproductive.But the state agricultural department does not believe that there is a severe crisis at hand. "The loss of agricultural land isn't much. We have till August-end to mend matters," Arshad Hussain, agriculture information officer at the department, said. Hussain, however, says that, there will be some loss in production due to the setback in plantation time.

Standard reaction
The state government opened more than 3,500 temporary shelters, besides lodging flood-hit people in schools and office buildings and providing essential food items such as rice, dal and salt to the affected. Baby food and medicines were also distributed. 669 relief camps were opened in the state where 1,46,621 people were provided relief.

The arrangements are rather typical of the state reaction in other flood-hit states. In Bihar, for example, food packets were air dropped in Darbhanga, Madhubani, East Champaran, Samastipur, Begusarai, Bhagalpur and Khagaria districts--the places completely cut off due to the floods. The packets contained wheat, rice, gur, chura, sattu, salt, candle and match boxes. But says, Vinay Odhar, regional manager Patna, Action Aid, "The government is distributing foodgrains to affected families. It should realise that people affected by floods are in no position to cook food. What they need is dry food."

Worse still, inclement weather led to air dropping of food being called off for a few days--a very serious problem considering the magnitude of the food crisis. And then in early August, Bihar's food corporation reported that food supplies from the Food Corporation of India had run short for the over 8 million marooned. Reena Devi of Baluwaha village in Muzaffarpur puts the problem of many like her in perspective: "My family of nine isn't getting food at all. There has been no support from the government." Reena and her family had to rush to an embankment after floods hit her village on July 28.

Embankments and the National Highway 57, in fact, became a refuge for many of the flood-hit (see box: Uneasy escape). But the embankments on Bhutani Balan,Kamla Balan were badly damaged.There was erosion in 132 embankments with breaches at 25 points, according to officials figures. The old bunds and important canal systems were also damaged in the floods. Bihar's principal secretary of water resources development department, A K Sinha, has conceded that the embankments have not been properly protected.

After the deluge
Today, many in Bihar and Assam have returned back home after the flood waters receded. But only to face a grim future. "We will starve for more than a month. Rice prices have gone up nearly five times, and we have no shelter," says Reena Devi.

Tempers have flared. Chief minister Nitish Kumar faced protests and hostile flood victims during his tour of flood hit areas.Down to EarthDown to Earth Deputy chief minister Shusil Kumar Modi's car was stoned by angry flood victims at Motihari. According to media reports, on August 20, about 1,000 people, including women and children armed with sticks, damaged furniture and equipment in the block office at Mahua in Bihar's Vaishali district for not distributing relief. In Sitamarhi district, flood victims led by a local legislator attacked police and administration officials after two youths drowned. They also pelted stones at the police to protest the failure of the administration to provide them boats.

On August 12, Bino Sharma, a 35-year old flood victim was killed and over two dozen people injured in clashes with police in Sonbarsa block of Saharsa district.The state's disaster management department commissioner Manoj Srivastava, however, claimed that there was no shortage of relief.

As floodwater recedes waterborne, airborne and mosquito related diseases are on the rise. Bihar government health officials admitted that people marooned in embankments and highways lack safe drinking water and this can cause a spurt in waterborne diseases. "People with waterborne diseases are coming to health camps in flood-affected districts," said Arun Kumar Thakur, honorary secretarty of the Indian Medical Association's Bihar chapter. Gita Prasad, Bihar's director in chief of health services also admitted of an increase in water borne diseases. undp's situation report of August 17 notes of 600 cases of fever in Khagaria district. Prasad, however said that there was no epidemic-like situation. The state's voluntary health association affirmed this.

The Assam Tribune on July 25, reported that cases of malaria and encephalitis have been reported from five public health centres in the state. 1,500 cases of diarrhoea were registered with government hospitals in Orissa's Balasore and Bhadrak districts.

Reported by Sumana Narayanan, Savvy Soumya Mishra, Vibha Varshney, Archita Bhatta, Amarjyoti Borah and Imran Khan

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