India

Frontline Diary

17 July 2004: Floodwaters wreak havoc, take lives and displace millions across South Asia

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF India/2004/Rahi
A family on a makeshift raft made from banana tree trunks in the Indian State of Bihar.

Monsoon rains and floods sweeping across South Asia have killed scores of people and left millions displaced in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The floodwaters have ravaged villages, ruined agricultural fields and continue to put children and women at risk of waterborne diseases, such as cholera and dysentery.

UNICEF and its partners in India, Bangladesh and Nepal are in the process of procuring emergency supplies to help the flood victims.

This weekend, floodwaters continued to wreak havoc in Bangladesh and India. UNICEF Communication Officer Anupam Srivastava, who focuses on the Indian States of Bihar and Jharkhand, offers this first-hand report about the situation on the ground in Bihar.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF India/2004/Rahi
UNICEF Communication Officer Anupam Srivastava on patrol with the Indian army

By Anupam Srivastava
MUZAFFARPUR, Bihar State, India 17 July 2004 - The road is the lifeline. It is home, bathroom, lavatory, dining place, protest and demonstration site, but when the floods come, it is also a cremation ground for the dead – victims of this year’s deadly monsoon season.

The survivors in Bihar have to walk the razor’s edge of a difficult choice: Either abandon their partially submerged homes, or remain and run the risk of dying from drowning, starvation or disease. Food and water have been running out as floodwaters continue to rise in large parts of the state. This Friday, 16 July, a major dam collapsed near Samastipur, a district that had been spared the worst until now.

We are with an Army regiment, whose job is to carry out relief and rescue work. Yesterday they distributed plastic sheets and a kilogram of food to each of the families they visited.  We start out our journey on what was once a national highway but is now potholed and in parts completely broken up.

In a few minutes, we come to a grinding halt. We are told by a returning journalist that there was a fight between two armed groups of people. One wanted to cut through the road so that water could flow from one side to another, and thereby reduce the water level on their side. The other group resisted so that they could remain safe. There was heavy firing, we are told.

Just a few minutes into our trip, the countryside is transformed. Instead of the lush greens we are used to seeing, we are surrounded by water that grows muddier and more and more turbulent as we go ahead.

Food shortages are just one of the many dangers facing flooded populations

We reach a railway station; the trains stopped operating a week ago. It is the last dry spot before a large area of flooded land. The sight of Army and UNICEF vehicles brings people running to us. Many of them are children. “I have not eaten for the past three days,” says Ramlal, a boy of 10 who looks too weak to support his weight on his legs. “Have you got something for us to eat?” says one little girl, looking feverish.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/Ranjan Rahi
A family tries to protect their grain from the rains along the Darbhanga_Muzaffapur highway, where thousands have taken shelter.

The areas we are currently visiting have not had floods for 20 years. The people were completely unprepared. We use boats to rescue those who want to come to dry land. As the boat moves away from the edge of the water, we are suddenly in the midst of the reality – a place where land ceased to exist several days ago.

We float past treetops and roofs of houses. A village headman travelling with us says, “What you see are the tallest trees and the tallest houses.” A stunned silence envelops the boat. On the way, we find snakes swimming to the nearest trees. Insects and birds sit on the smallest branch, leaf or anything else that floats. Even the Army personnel, who are used to these situations, are silenced by the danger that surrounds those who are at the other end.

The first habitation we reach is a large mound where people from the surrounding villages have gathered. Some of them wade through water to reach us. They are looking for food and drinking water. “Do you have anything that I can eat?” asks an old man whose family is still in the village and has not moved with him. We hear about Lukhee Paswan, who drowned while he was trying to reach the mound from his village; his son stands alone, on the verge of breaking into tears. “Someone find his body, please,” asks a villager.

We pick up an elderly man, who has difficulty breathing, and two children with severe diarrhoea and move ahead. After travelling a couple of miles, we reach another village which is almost completely submerged, with its people staying on rooftops. No one wants to leave their home, except a pregnant woman and a sick woman, who board the boat on being assured that they would be brought to safety.

In all the villages we visit, people have been eating wet, rotting grain and drinking muddy water. “The hand pumps give us the same water that you see all around,” says a man from Asaram Tikra. Food is scarce and not safe from the rain that lashes the ground every few hours. A large number of people have been falling sick, reporting fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.

We return to the Darbhanga-Muzaffarpur road, where yesterday a girl drowned. Her body has been cremated, and we are told about another death that occurred a few days back.  As we return, we again witness people pouncing on vehicles that come to distribute food. Fights break out and roadblocks make things difficult.

Life has come to a complete standstill. The only thing that is moving is water. We promise we will come back. “Call out my name. If I am not dead by then, I will meet you,” says Umesh Sahni, father of another girl who drowned in the water a couple of days ago.


 

 

Video

20 July 2004: UNICEF's Maya Dollarhide reports on the children struggling to survive the severe flooding sweeping across South Asia.

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