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Severe flooding in South Asia leaves children and families stranded

© UNICEF India/2004/Rahi
These children seek shelter from the rising floodwaters in Bihar, India.

As the severe floods in South Asia continue to threaten lives and displace millions across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, children and their families are stranded without shelter and are now left exposed to the harsh effects of the monsoon season. Families are scrambling to protect their meager supplies of grain.

In response to the flood crisis in the Indian State of Bihar, UNICEF has dispatched 3,500 high-quality tarpaulins, and will soon be sending more to protect families from the present downpour and from the ferociously hot sunshine that often immediately follows a period of rainfall. UNICEF is also dispatching other much-needed supplies to the region including bleaching powder and halogen tablets.

By Anupam Srivastava
DARBHANGA, Bihar State, India, 20 July 2004 – Munni Devi, mother of five children, has been doing something she had never done before: She has been holding an umbrella for the past three days almost without a break. She is unhappy – not because it’s hard work, but because her efforts are going unrewarded. “No matter how hard I try, the rain manages to get in,” she says. She does not care so much about the ache in her arms. “I can suffer pain and be quiet, but when my children get wet, I feel like crying,” she says.

The people of Bihar are confronting the paradox of owning homes and being unable to live in them, due to the flooding – or, worse, living in homes that do not perform their primary function – provide shelter.

© UNICEF India/2004/Rahi
UNICEF is delivering much needed relief supplies to the region.
A large number of people in the flood-affected districts of Bihar – their number rising every day – have fled their homes and have taken refuge on roads, or mounds, or whatever place they can find that is free of water. Some families have taken to the rooftops of their homes, or to their neighbours’ rooftops, where they are without protection from the alternating onslaughts of searing sunshine and cold rain.

According to the Disaster Management Office of the Bihar Government, an estimated 100,000 houses have been damaged by this year's floods. The estimates, easily captured in a figure, mean there are hundreds of thousands of people at this very moment who are huddling for cover under umbrellas, torn plastic sheets taken from packaging material, or just about anything that can stop at least a few drops of water.

© UNICEF India/2004/Rahi
UNICEF has dispatched 3,500 high-quality tarpaulins to the Indian state of Bihar.
Trying to save grain as the floodwaters rise

The story of Mangat Ram’s family, who fled their village near Birhol in Darbhanga district, is a bit different. As the water began to rise, Mangat Ram was quick to realize that he needed to save his grain. The family waded through waist-deep water and made several trips to the road. Now, as the rain and sun batter them, the grain lies protected under a plastic sheet, but the family only has one umbrella for its own shelter. Mangat Ram explains: “We work very hard for these few sacks of grain. We can not let it get destroyed.”

There are many others around him who are making their best efforts to save a handful of grain, even if it is rotting. They put out their grain to dry the moment there is sunshine, and stack it in plastic bags the moment it rains. They have done this several times a day, and will keep doing it till the sun sets. “This is what we must do, no matter what the results are,” says a woman gathering her grain hurriedly as sudden rainfall descends.

© UNICEF India/2004/Rahi
Children affected by the floods wait at a relief station to receive food.
UNICEF provides much-needed plastic sheeting

Away from the road, there are thousands of villages where people, incredibly, still live. As Army boats go near seemingly abandoned villages that appear to float on the oceanic layer of water that surrounds them, people emerge from their houses. Many of them are wet. They have no changes of clothes and their houses are far from being able to provide the protection they need.

The price of plastic sheets and tarpaulins has been rising with the demand. Trading in polythene sheets is a big business. There are reports of plastic sheets being sold at more than 25 to 30 per cent above the usual prices. “The closer the sale is to an affected area, the higher is the profit,” says a social worker whose organization has been carrying out relief work in the Muzaffarpur district.

In response, UNICEF has immediately dispatched 3,500 high-quality tarpaulin sheets, followed by a further 6,500 which will protect as many families from the rain and the bright sunshine that often immediately follows a period of rainfall. In addition, UNICEF has already provided halogen tablets and bleaching powder that will help in protecting against water-borne diseases.




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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