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Red Cross:  Floods Put India in Need of Emergency Assistance - 2002-08-15

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says nearly 20 million people in India are suffering from the worst floods to hit the country in 25 years. The aid agency says emergency assistance is desperately needed in India's Bihar and Assam states.

The floods began in late June, and have worsened considerably in recent weeks in the wake of heavy monsoon rains.

The Red Cross says more than 230 people have died in India, and 1.5 million are homeless. In all, it says, nearly 20 million people are affected in Assam and Bihar states, with extensive damage to crops, roads and communication systems.

A Red Cross spokesman, Patrick Fuller, says 17 million people have been affected in Bihar state alone.

"So, obviously, getting access to these people is our primary concern," he said. "The Indian Red Cross has search and rescue teams. They have got 60 boats in Bihar, traveling around, actually taking people to safety. The government set up relief camps there. The Red Cross is taking them food; medical teams are going in. So, the priority is really to rescue people at the moment and take them to safety, but also to ensure that they have food, that they have clothing, and have shelter."

Bihar has been hit by a double disaster this year. Some areas have been struck by severe flooding, but others are suffering from extreme drought. Mr. Fuller says the combined effect on the local economy has been devastating, with about 95 percent of the crops not expected to survive. He says the next harvest is not until March, so millions of farmers in the state are in for a very hard time.

The Red Cross spokesman also says India and the rest of South Asia have experienced some extreme weather in recent years.

"As to whether you can put this down purely to climate change, I do not know," he said. "But, if you ask the average farmer in rural India, they certainly will say that the weather pattern has changed in recent years. The summers have become a lot hotter, a lot more arid. People are suffering from drought. But, also, we have these intense areas of monsoon weather in certain areas of the country, which have been unprecedented."

The Red Cross is appealing for more than $2 million (US) to help the Indian Red Cross provide food, shelter and medical care for 200,000 people during the next six months. The agency made a similar multi-million dollar appeal earlier this week for flood victims in Bangladesh and Nepal.