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India Declares Flood a 'National Calamity'

India's prime minister on Thursday declared the flooded state of Bihar a "national calamity" and ordered emergency relief. The official death toll is 55 but it is believed hundreds more have drowned. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi on what is being described as possibly the worst Indian flood in half a century.

India is trying to come to grips with the worsening disaster in one of its poorest states.

The breach of the Kosi River is now being called one of India's worst floods in recent memory.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accompanied by the leader of the coalition of the governing parties, Sonia Gandhi, boarded an Air Force helicopter for an aerial look at the soaked state. He then ordered emergency reserves of 125,000 tons of food grain poured into Bihar. The state will also receive $225 million to help alleviate what the prime minister calls a "national calamity."

Relief camps are being established to assist those whose villages are under or surrounded by water.

The coordinator for emergency operations in Bihar for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, Mukesh Puri, tells VOA News more than two million people have already been affected.

"Sanitation and availability of drinking water are going to be highly restrained therefore there is always the possibility of water-borne diseases and some epidemics breaking out unless disease surveillance happens and proper health care facilities are provided, especially to the vulnerable groups like children and women," said Puri.

The worst is not over. The Kosi River flows from Nepal where it breached its embankments on August 18. The Kosi's swollen flow is now estimated upstream to be more than 12 kilometers wide and the river has actually shifted to the east.

UNICEF emergency coordinator Puri says with that water flowing into Bihar - and more heavy rain forecast - the crisis could become much more severe.

"The biggest concern is clearly that the discharge is expected to increase. In the coming months it can double," said Puri. "Therefore the biggest threat comes from the water which is coming from upstream. So rains will clearly make things much worse."

Some wet and hungry villagers clinging to rooftops are sending desperate text messages to relatives and others pleading for rescue. Others are resorting to drinking the dirty floodwaters to survive.

West of Bihar, in the most populated Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, torrential rains have caused several major rivers to rise above their banks. Officials say the flooding there has killed more than 700 people. Authorities estimate that hundreds of villages in Uttar Pradesh are completely surrounded by water.