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Flood Victims Cope in India's Bihar State 


The annual monsoon rains have unleashed flooding in several parts of India, killing nearly 1,500 people and leaving millions of others homeless. The worst affected region is the eastern state, Bihar, where a river burst its embankment, last month, and flooded large parts of the state. Anjana Pasricha has a report on how flood victims in one of India's poorest states are coping, weeks after they were swept out of their homes.

No one in 13-year-old Soni Kumari's village in Bihar's Supaul District had ever seen a flood. The village lies far away from the river. So, when the raging waters of the Kosi River engulfed their homes, chaos ensued.

Soni fled the torrent. But the young girl lost contact with her parents and brothers and sisters and arrived alone in a boat to a relief camp. She still does not know whether her family found sanctuary in another relief camp or was swept away by the floodwaters.

Nearly one month later, the young girl has no idea what the future holds for her.

She says she will not go back to her village because there is too much water there. She only wants to return if her parents are found.

Soni is among the three million victims made homeless when the Kosi River, swollen with monsoon waters, burst an embankment and changed course, swallowing up huge swathes of a populous region in one of India's poorest states.

Tens of thousands of villagers now squat in relief camps that have sprung up around temporary tents or public buildings. They have a common story to tell: homes have been submerged, meager possessions have been swept away, families have been separated and lush, green fields, which yielded an income, are covered with muddy water.

Among these distraught victims is Chandra Kala Devi, 25. She has arrived with her young son, but does not know what fate befell her husband.

She says they spent nearly six days on the roofs of local market shops, with hardly any food and water, hoping the flood would ebb. But when the situation worsened, she had to flee, leaving behind everything: homes, possessions and animals.

In the relief camps, the government, international aid organizations and local charities have joined hands to cope with the disaster, which the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called a "national calamity".

The huge relief operation is focused on providing food and clean water, building temporary toilets, and ensuring that disease and epidemics do not aggravate the misery of the victims. The government and aid organizations are also trying to reunite families separated when the disaster struck.

But victims worry about how to pick up the threads of their lives. State representative of the United Nations Children's Fund in Bihar, Bijaya Rajbhandari, says many of them will have to stay in the camps at least until the end of the year. He says houses are destroyed and much of the land will be unfit for cultivation for some time.

"Those populations which have been completely washed out, houses have been washed out, schools have washed out, that means they cant go back," he said. "They have nothing left out there. There is a issue even of land which has been affected because of the silt. So, also it will have the impact on the winter crop, so that means livelihood of thousands of people is at risk."

Pravind Kumar Praveen of ActionAid has been working with flood victims in Supaul District, which bore the brunt of the flooding. He says many villages were caught unaware when their homes were flooded and, as a result, lost everything.

Praveen says the flood came so suddenly that most villagers were unable to salvage anything. He says they just managed to save themselves.

The state government has been criticized for not reinforcing river embankments to prevent the flood and for not giving adequate warning to communities, once the river had breached its embankments.

Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the deputy regional director of the World Health Organization's Southeast Asia region, says it is important to evacuate people quickly in a region where flooding makes millions homeless, every year.

"We have had floods always, but the intensity of floods has gone up, as we have seen lately in flooding that has occurred in Sri Lanka, in Bangaldesh, in Nepal, in India," she said. "A lot of people are displaced, so there has to be preparedness to shift these people to better areas, when we find that a natural calamity of this magnitude is coming."

Aid agencies say that governments in South Asia, where natural disasters have been taking an increasingly heavy toll on poor communities, must focus more on preparing for disasters rather than responding to them after they happen.

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