At least 55 people have been killed in India’s state of Bihar and more than one million remain stranded amid severe floods. The figures are likely to go up, as the region’s main river, the Koshi, continues to overflow. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared the floods a national calamity and has announced the immediate release of relief aid for the state. The announcement was made following his visit to the flood affected areas on Thursday. The death toll from this year's monsoon in India has already climbed past 800.
Every year, heavy monsoon rains cause floods and experts fear they are getting worse because of climate change
Jayamala from the Araria district of eastern Indian state of Bihar is crying. She and her husband and two children were able to save their lives but they lost everything else. They are just four of hundreds of thousands, whose houses, crops and livestock were completely destroyed in the floods, considered the worst in 50 years.
The government has deployed the army to help bring stranded people to safer ground. Officials say that air force helicopters have dropped food packets in the area. Bihar’s Disaster Management Minister Nitish Mishra explained how the relief work was progressing: “Relief camps have been opened in the affected districts, where people are getting basic aid. We know that the affected people may well have to stay in these camps for months.”
Vinay Odar, the regional coordinator of Action Aid in Patna, said there were not enough resources: “The authorities need boats. There are not enough relief camps either. The other problem is that the areas don’t have enough high ground. When the authorities appeal to people to evacuate their homes -- where should they actually go?”
Heavier monsoon rains than usual
India's annual monsoon, which usually arrives in early June tends to retreat in September. This years’ rains were heavier than usual, which caused one of the main rivers in eastern Bihar, the Koshi, -- also known as the Sorrow of Bihar -- to break its banks at the border with Nepal ten days ago, creating havoc in the local area.
“The situation is grim because the Koshi has been overflowing continuously,” said Minister Mishra, “People are affected in four districts in particular -- Supaul, Araria, Madhepura and Poorniya. We have been trying to evacuate people, but unless, and until, the embankment, which broke in Nepal, is fixed, the flow of water will not stop.”
The Bihar state government has urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take up the issue with the Nepalese authorities and demand that they construct high dams and strengthen the river embankments there. But Nepal says India has to carry out the necessary repair work and maintenance on the dam because this was what was agreed in a 1954 bilateral agreement.
At least 50,000 people in Nepal have also been affected by the floods so far. The authorities fear more breaches of the riverbank if repairs are not undertaken quickly.
Vinay Odar says that people needed to be better prepared to face such disasters in future: “The reason why the impact of the devastation has been so massive is that people were unprepared, and do not know how to cope. These areas are not prone to floods and no mechanisms are in place for dealing with them.”
Describing the floods in the state of Bihar as a "national calamity", Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced a relief package of almost 155 million euros as well as 125,000 tonnes of grain. “In this hour of need, the Indian government and India as a whole are with the people of Bihar.”
Meanwhile, the UN’s children's fund UNICEF says that cases of diarrhea and fever are already being reported in makeshift camps. But there seems to be little relief in sight with weather experts warning of more rain in the region over the next four to five days.