2.5 Million Indians Stranded by Floods

Soldiers pressed efforts to rescue hundreds of thousands of people still stranded after weeks of flooding in northern India. Video by AP
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

NEW DELHI, Sept. 2 -- Nearly 2.5 million Indians remained stranded, homeless and hungry in flood-ravaged villages in the eastern part of the country Tuesday, 17 days after a river burst a dam in neighboring Nepal and changed course.

Heavy rains and the swelling waters of the Kosi, known as the "river of sorrow" and worshipped by local people, caused havoc in almost 1,000 villages in Bihar state. Panic-stricken people fled to higher ground, tree tops and cramped makeshift camps.

About 117 people are reported dead, but officials in Bihar said the death toll could rise sharply as receding waters reveal more bodies.

Monsoon floods are an annual feature of Indian life, but some officials say the damage has been catastrophic this year.

"The river changed its course and inundated areas where people have not seen floods in 50 years. They were completely unprepared," said Mahesh Puri, an emergency specialist with UNICEF, speaking from Patna, the capital of Bihar. "What is worse is that many of these people will never be able to go back to their homes because the river has changed its course. Now there are streams where there were none before."

The Kosi River is infamous for failing to keep to its bed. This year, the river breached a dam in Nepal that was built in 1954 and is maintained by India.

Several Indian newspapers have alleged that India failed to remove silt at the dam site, allowing the water to rise to dangerous levels, and did not respond even after the breach was reported.

On Tuesday, waters also rose in the northeastern state of Assam, where the Brahmaputra River gushed into a national park that is home to elephants and endangered one-horned rhinoceroses.

The Assam relief camps "are unhygienic and overcrowded," Puri said. "There is not enough clean drinking water. People are drinking the dangerous river waters that is carrying disease."

About 3,000 soldiers and several naval divers have been deployed to rescue people and bring them to the camps. The army is using six helicopters and 450 boats, and has set up 37 clinics at the camp sites.

Puri said scores of volunteers are distributing water purification tablets and anti-diarrhea packets. Disease surveillance teams have been sent to the scene in a state where more than half the children are undernourished even in normal times.

Hundreds of thousands of frightened villagers have been making the perilous trek across flooded farmland, often carrying wailing children on their shoulders. Goats and buffalos were being herded along.

Some people have perched themselves on tree tops as they waited for boats to rescue them. The boats have often been overwhelmed by desperate crowds.

The acute shortage of food and other supplies triggered riots and looting in several parts of Bihar. Television images showed people scrambling to grab sacks of grains dropped from military aircraft.

A high-ranking team of officials from New Delhi toured the affected areas Tuesday. The chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, said plugging the dam breach and returning the river to its original course would be "a long-term project."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company