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Aid Agencies Warn of Threat of Disease, Epidemic in India's Flood-Stricken Bihar State

  • Anjana Pasricha

Aid agencies are warning of the threat of disease in India's Bihar State, which has been hit by devastating floods. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi the floods have displaced an estimated three million people and killed at least 90 people.

After being evacuated from flooded villages spread across the state, nearly a quarter of a million people have been housed in makeshift relief camps in Bihar State. Thousands more are pouring into the shelters, every day, as authorities step up the rescue operation.

Aid workers say the camps are cramped and overcrowded. The United Nations has warned that the heat, combined with limited supplies of safe drinking water and poor hygiene, pose a great risk of water and airborne diseases.

The coordinator for emergency operations in Bihar for the United Nations Children's Fund, Mukesh Puri, says facilities in relief camps must improve, to ward off the threat of epidemics.

"The doctors are there, but we do notice that there is an increase in cases of diarrhea, in particular," he said. "Apart from providing food and other basic amenities, proper hygienic conditions have to be maintained and clean drinking water has to be provided. Particularly vulnerable groups like small children and pregnant women, their needs have to be taken care of, which is a challenge in such trying conditions."

The floods started two weeks ago when the Kosi River breached a dam in Nepal. The river then shifted course, and flood waters spread across parts of Nepal and Bihar, including areas never threatened by floods before. Many people are still waiting to be rescued.

Bihar's chief minister says the humanitarian crisis is likely to be extremely serious for several weeks, because the waters are not likely to recede anytime soon. Bihar is one of India's poorest and least developed states.

UNICEF's Puri says the aid effort will have to be sustained for a long time and among communities not used to coping with flooding.

"The challenging part is these camps will stay there for three months or up to six months. This is a different kind of flood," he said. "Generally water goes away after 15-20 days. This time the people who have been hit, they have never had floods in the last 30 years, so they are not quite prepared in any sense for this kind of a devastation."

Nepal is coping with the aftermath of the flooding. Aid workers there have reported outbreaks of fever, pneumonia and diarrhea among the flood victims.

Floods usually sweep across South Asia during the monsoon season, from June to September, making millions of people homeless, killing hundreds, and destroying farmland.