COVID-19, floods: Bihar stares at twin challenge with onset of monsoon

Bihar Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar held a meeting with top officials on June 10 to review preparedness measures
COVID-19, floods: Bihar stares at twin challenge with onset of monsoon

The onset on monsoon in about 48 hours has had Bihar stare at a twin problem — floods and the ensuing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Monsoon is set to enter the state in less than two days, according to a state meteorological department report. The fear of  flood, compounded by rising COVID-19 cases, has officials on their toes.

Bihar chief secretary Deepak Kumar held a meeting with top officials from various departments on June 10 to review preparedness for possible flood. “Many north Bihar districts face flood situation from mid-June. All officials need to be ready with arrangements to tackle the possible flood situation, while also maintaining social distancing and hygiene,” the chief secretary said.

The COVID-19 cases, meanwhile, have been surging fast. The state recorded 485 cases on May 1; by June 10, they had jumped to 5,583. This was a 10-time increase in the over 40 days.

At least 34 people have died in the state so far.

Of the total cases, 3,989 came through migrant workers who returned home by Shramik special trains, according to a report by the Bihar health department. 

The state disaster management department has asked all district magistrates across the state to make necessary arrangements for masks and sanitisers at flood relief camps. 

“There must be adequate arrangements for hand sanitisers and liquid / soap at relief camps. Hygiene has to be maintained during cooking, serving and cleaning utensils. Social distancing norms have to be followed,” Bihar disaster management secretary Pratyay Amrit said in his letter to all district magistrates.

The non-profits working for floods victims expressed displeasure with the preparations, saying the government lost the golden period of two months by halting flood prevention works. They claimed that the government started looking at flood prevention works when the monsoon was just 48 hours away.

 “The flood fighting works remained suspended during the lockdown period. Had they not been stalled, many such works would have been completed by now. This would have also given employment to poor labourers as well,” said Bhawan Pathak who runs Kosi Consortium.

According to him, the authorities will also have to make arrangements for relief camps to keep the virus at bay.

“The villages are teeming with migrant workers after they returned home. A house which had three members earlier now has at least seven-eight members. This is bound to be a challenge to the government,” said Pathak.

He added that the government will have to increase number of relief camps by five-fold this time.

The situation is likely to go out of control once rains in the catchment areas start feeding rivers in north Bihar, Pathak added. “The government has not learnt any lesson from previous floods,” he said.

 “There is an urgent requirement on the part of the state as well as the non-state actors to take immediate measures and acknowledge multiple risks emanating from overlapping hazards. Collective action at the ward level is needed to develop co-benefit strategies,” said a report titled Overlapping Hazards Increased Risk — Need for Immediate Action.

The report was authored by Eklavya Prasad and Nirmalya Choudhary working with water campaigns Megh Pyne Abhiyan and VikasAnvsh respectively.

“The plans have to be made keeping physical distancing norms as mandated under COVID-19 guidelines coupled with access to safe drinking water and sanitation,” the report stated.

At least 28 of state’s 38 districts are prone to floods. Of them, 15 districts are considered extremely flood-prone, according to a report of Bihar State Disaster Management Authority.

 “A vast swathe of our land gets inundated every year not because of the excessive rainfall within our geographical boundaries but due to flooding in the rivers such as Kosi, Kamala-Balan, Bagmati, Gandak, Adhwara group of rivers, Sone and Ganges which emanate beyond our territory in Nepal, Chhatisgarh / Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand,” the report said.

In 2008, the Kosi breached its mud embankment at Kusaha in Nepal, leaving around five million settled across five districts of north Bihar homeless for months. The river flowed through the densely-populated villages and claimed around a thousand lives. The month-long flooding damaged several houses.

The Indian meteorological department has predicted a good monsoon this year. “We expect the monsoon to enter Bihar from Purnia on June 13. It will then spread to central and south Bihar,” Bihar meteorological Director Vivek Sinha told Down to Earth.

“We are hopeful for a good monsoon this year. It will be 96 per cent of the long period average,” Sinha added.

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