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Rising floodwaters force millions to flee in the dead of night

Severe flooding in South Asia continues to threaten lives and displace millions of children and their families across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In the Indian state of Assam, more than 10 million children and adults have been made homeless after the Brahamaputra River overflowed its banks.

By Kiran Negi, UNICEF Advocacy and Partnership Officer, UNICEF West Bengal and Assam, India
MORIGAON, Assam, India, 22 July 2004 – With floodwaters rising around her feet, Padumi Medhi shook her children out of bed and rushed them out into the night in search of safety.

It was a pitch dark outside and they waded through knee-deep water towards the outskirts of the village.  Leaving behind everything apart from the little they could carry, Padumi and her family stumbled towards the road in search of dry land.

The family reached the embankment at around 3 a.m., as the floods in Morigaon rose to waist-high levels.

More than 10 million affected

There are hundreds of such stories unfolding, as more than 10 million men, women and children have been displaced from their homes across the 27 districts of the state. Nearly half of Assam’s population has been displaced; people are staying in a series of small, isolated ‘islands’.

The situation here continues to be critical as the Brahamaputra River is still flowing well above the danger mark. Some  88,000 homes in Assam have been damaged since the floods began during the first week of July, and 20,000 out of the state’s 31,000 schools are now underwater.

In a phone interview today, UNICEF State Representative for West Bengal and Assam Rudolph Schwenk said that this monsoon season has been one of the most damaging in recent memory. Mr. Schwenk just returned from helping to distribute UNICEF supplies to several of the flood-stricken areas where relief camps are sheltering those in need.

“This is the worst situation in recent history and the whole state is affected by the floods – all 27 districts. We visited the flood relief camps and spoke with people who have never had to flee their homes before, and they were stunned. You could especially see it in the faces of the children,” said Mr. Schwenk.

Increasing numbers of women and children are at risk as they take shelter behind makeshift embankments, arriving on homemade rafts built with bamboo and jute ropes. There are hundreds of people wading through the floodwaters in search of a dry piece of land.

UNICEF supplies arrive

The government of Assam is responding to the situation with relief supplies of food and medicines supplemented by essential supplies pre-positioned by UNICEF earlier in the year. As the UNICEF convoy travelled through the few accessible roads in Morigaon, we witnessed the distribution of drinking water and tarpaulin sheets for temporary accommodation.

Other supplies include bleaching powder, ferric alum and lime, which are enabling the Public Health Engineering department to provide safe drinking water to the displaced population.  UNICEF is also providing halogen tablets and oral rehydration salts for families with small children. (Oral rehydration salts are used to treat diarrhoea by replenishing essential fluids and minerals.)

UNICEF has been closely monitoring the situation since the flooding began and is in continuous dialogue with the government on the humanitarian crisis.




23 July 2004: UNICEF State Representative for West Bengal and Assam Rudolph Schwenk speaks to UNICEF's Maya Dollarhide about his recent visit to flooded areas in Assam.

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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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