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Deadly South Asia floods leave families trapped without food and water

A flood-affected family waits for help at the marooned Tarabari village, west of Gauhati, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, on June 20. (Anupam Nath/AP)

When the floodwaters came, they swept away everything — furniture, clothes, even drums full of rice. Mainul Haque had never seen anything like it.

“We were not ready for this kind of flooding,” the 28-year-old said. “We could not save anything.”

Haque is a resident of Cholita Bari village in Bangladesh’s Sylhet district, one of the areas hit hardest by devastating monsoon floods that have swallowed villages, washed away bridges, snapped electricity lines and displaced millions.

Home to one-fifth of the world’s population, South Asia is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. While annual monsoon rains are crucial for the agrarian economies of the region, they have become ever more unpredictable. As temperatures rise, the monsoon is now marked by short spells of very heavy rainfall, which can trigger deadly, fast-moving floods.

Millions stranded as heavy flooding sweeps through Bangladesh and India

Authorities delivered relief supplies June 20 to flooded towns and villages after more than 4 million people were marooned in the country, officials said. (Video: Reuters)

Relief workers in Bangladesh estimate that at least 40 people have died in monsoon-related events, including lightning strikes and landslides, and the toll is expected to rise. Across the border in northeastern India, authorities in Assam and Meghalaya said at least 115 people have been killed.

The two countries have pressed their militaries into action for rescue and relief work and set up shelters for the displaced. Images from local media in Bangladesh show people walking in waist-deep water, clutching a few belongings in plastic bags held above their heads. Some moved to safety in narrow wooden boats. In Assam, people marooned in flooded homes said they were without food and drinking water.

Data from the Indian Meteorological Department shows how drastically the weather is changing. In the first three weeks of June, the state of Assam received 109 percent more rain than normal; neighboring Meghalaya saw nearly three times its average amount of precipitation. The town of Mawsynram recorded about 40 inches of rainfall in 24 hours on June 17, surpassing the previous high, observed in 1966.

“The densely populated South Asia is the most vulnerable to climate change due to its proximity to the rapidly warming Indian Ocean on its south and the rapidly melting glaciers on its north,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Koll noted that there has been an intensification of heat waves, cyclones, extreme rains and sea level rise in recent years.

At stake are the lives of hundreds of millions of some of the poorest people in the world.

Dewan Uddus Choudhury, a 44-year-old farmer in Assam’s Barpeta district, is stranded in his partially submerged home with his wife and daughter. Food is running low, and no government help has reached them.

“We have not been able to get out of our house,” Choudhury said. “There is six to eight feet of water outside.”

In another part of the state, two policemen engaged in rescue efforts were washed away in the floodwaters, local media reported. Damage to a major highway in the region has interrupted road travel to and from the state of Tripura and halted the delivery of essentials.

In northeastern Bangladesh, the districts of Sylhet and Sunamganj have borne the brunt of the flooding.

Farid Uddin Ahmed, a government worker, traveled 13 hours — via bus, auto rickshaw, truck, on foot and finally by boat — to reach his parents’ flooded home in Sunamganj district. The journey usually takes half that time.

“I had to risk my life to reach my village,” Ahmed said. “There was no electricity. I found at least one and a half feet of water in the house.”

Residents of Companiganj in Sylhet district said they have been without power for five days.

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Poor connectivity and communication snags are preventing aid from reaching those who need it most, and relief workers say the widespread flooding has made it difficult for them to store rations for distribution.

“In many affected areas, the only means of mobility is still happening by boats, and those, too, are found to be scarce in the current situation,” said Farah Kabir, the country head of ActionAid in Bangladesh.

Beyond the immediate need for food and safe drinking water, people also need urgent access to health care, said Kabir, citing the risk of “waterborne diseases.”

Although the monsoon floods are a recurring problem, experts say governments are often slow to act, responding only after areas are underwater. Authorities need to develop better forecasting mechanisms, build embankments and ensure that people are informed in time, said Partha Jyoti Das, who heads the water and climate division at Aaranyak, a local NGO in Assam.

Ultimately, he said, short-term measures will not be enough. The government needs to “prepare a long-term action plan” for mitigating floods and disasters, allowing people to “gain resilience and coexist with riverine hazards in a sustainable way.”

Majumder reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Naqvi from Guwahati, India.