|© UNICEF India/2008/Rahi|
|A flood-affected family takes refuge in a relief camp established at Bathnaha High School in Bihar, India.|
By Priyanka Khanna
ARARIA, India, 3 September 2008 – Zafeda Khatum has just lost her newborn baby son to the icy waters of the Kosi River. The 18-year-old maintains a stoic silence even as her family members clamour around to explain how she lost her infant.
Zafeda and the rest of the family were abruptly awakened when water began filling their shanty in Araria district after the river rose several feet overnight.
Zafeda, who was eight months pregnant, went into premature labour after she and her family were forced to abandon their home, livestock and crops. After wading through freezing water and reaching higher ground, she gave birth to her son, who died eight hours later.
The ‘Sorrow of Bihar’
Floodwaters have caused difficulty in large parts of the eastern Indian state of Bihar since an embankment ruptured at Kusaha in neighbouring Nepal on 18 August.
The floods have affected almost 2.7 million people in India and about 70,000 in Nepal. Known as the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’, the Kosi River has a history of unleashing wide-scale devastation. It affects a largely marginalised population, many of whom survive on about 46 cents a day.
“Even without the current floods, the situation in Bihar is challenging. Already, vulnerable groups could be pushed over the edge by this crisis,” said UNICEF Emergency Specialist Mukesh Puri.
|© UNICEF India/2008/ Rahi|
|Many people who could not come by boat had to walk through high water to get to the Sursar relief camp in Bihar.|
News reports estimate that 500,000 marooned individuals have been evacuated and 198 relief camps have been set up to date.
The district administration has set up camps providing food, water and medical supplies. Polythene sheets for tents have also been distributed to those rescued. UNICEF has supplied bleaching powder to purify water and oral rehydration salt (ORS) packets to treat diarrhoeal dehydration, as well as disposable delivery kits, plastic sheeting, vitamin A supplements and other relief supplies.
Yesterday, a maternity hut was erected in one of the largest relief camps in Supaul, with plans in place to set up 40 more within the month.
Nutrition, water and hygiene needs
Cases of diarrhoea are being reported in Araria and Supaul districts by people forced to drink contaminated river water while they were stranded.
In most camps, drinking water is available through hand pumps, but more are needed as the number of displaced continues to grow. Additional toilets are also needed to meet the growing demand. Solid waste contamination in the camps and along road sides poses a risk of water and vector borne diseases in coming days.
UNICEF is in the process of procuring additional supplies of essential items, including bleaching powder, hygiene kits, and ready-to-use therapeutic foods.
Pressure on relief camps
As more people are rescued, the pressure on the relief camps will continue to grow, making the situation of women and children even more precarious.
“The displaced population will not be able to go back to their homes until the breach is repaired. We are estimating that these people will have to remain in these camps for anything between three to six months,” said Special District Magistrate Sandip Pondrik, who is in charge of the rescue and relief operation in Araria.
“This will require a huge humanitarian response.”