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Story Publication logo September 17, 2007

Climate Change, Corruption Contribute to Deadly Effects of Northern India Floods


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Cows are a valued source of food which many homeless victims choose to live alongside.

MUZAFFARPUR, India -- Looking out over gray waters that have drowned the rice paddies that are his livelihood, laborer Bhavat Nagar swore no flood he could recall came close to the size of the latest monsoon deluge that also washed away most of his village and a neighbor's child.

"This is the worst it has been," he said, shaking his head. "We always lose a little, but now we have lost everything. I don't know what to do."

This reaction was replayed by dozens of landless poor in northern Bihar state, the region worst-hit by this year's South Asia floods. More than 20 million are affected here and at least 600 have died, while scores of others stranded in remote districts have yet to be accounted for.

Mismanagement and corruption within the Bihar government are largely to blame for the lackluster disaster response, according to aid officials. But many experts say it is the onset of climate change that has made an existing problem much worse -- with ominous prospects for India's long-term stability.

Jacques Diouf, director general of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, has warned that symptoms from even small temperature rises could destroy vast swaths of the country's farmland, affecting food production and further marginalizing desperate workers like Nagar, who live off the land. About 200,000 people already leave Bihar each year looking for work.

With more than 40 percent of his state submerged, Bihar Relief Commissioner R. Srivastava, citing government figures, said rainfall for the month of July was five times higher than the monthly average over a 30-year span. A government report indicates that one-third of the country's meteorological districts have had higher than average rains so far this year.

"It's an every year phenomenon, so there's nothing special about flooding [in Bihar]," the commissioner said, noting bad floods in 1987 and 2004. "What makes this such a departure is not just the intensity but the length. In July we had a stretch of 20 straight days of rain here."

The result has been a near-total loss of the summer harvest and the next crop in October, he said, a scenario that will keep thousands of laborers unemployed and dependent on handouts from the state and aid agencies to survive the winter.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that the implications of climate change go beyond severe flooding and droughts to water scarcity and rising sea levels, along with its negative impact on agricultural productivity. Damage to infrastructure such as roads and wells, he adds, could "aggravate social unrest to the point where national security could be affected."

In Bihar, the vast majority of villages destroyed are in low-lying areas inhabited by Dalits, or so-called "untouchables," whom aid officials say are accustomed to the hardships that come with living on the margins of society. Aside from one instance in early August, in which a man was beaten to death by police for joining a protest over food shortages, resignation has prevailed.

"What people have here is so little, they don't even care when it gets washed away," said Balaji Singh, director of emergency response for CARE India. "They may agitate a little for short-term relief, but the next election they go out and vote for the very same people," a reference to officials at the state and local level known to stall -- or even steal from -- relief efforts.

In 2005, 11 government and bank officials, including the former district magistrate of Patna, the state capital, were charged with embezzling almost $2.5 million in state funds earmarked for flood relief. That same year, Bihar ranked "worst" of all Indian states in Transparency International's India Corruption Study.

Foul play is said to be systemic, all the way down to the village level, where local elected officials sometimes take a cut of relief supplies they are in charge of distributing, or favor members of their own caste when they do so.

Rather than being used prior to flooding to establish a network of village food banks, millions of government dollars have instead been poured into building river embankments that have backfired, critics say.

According to Kendra Okonski, environmental program director of the London-based International Policy Network, the structures have raised river levels by blocking the spread of silt over a larger area, thereby increasing the amount of flood-prone land. When too much pressure forces embankments to break, the run-off wreaks havoc on the poor living nearby.

Relief Commissioner Srivastava counters that emergency measures were already in place this year, and were supplemented by airdrops to some isolated areas, but those measures still fell short in the face of this year's "unprecedented" floods. To mitigate future risks, he said the state is devising a plan to get around the prohibitive cost of pre-positioning relief.

Additionally, the state's chief minister has proposed cooperating with Nepal to build a damn that would collect water before it flows down from the Himalayas and floods northern Bihar's rivers. There is also talk of a state-of-the-art weather monitoring system for the region.

Climate experts, for their part, maintain that more fundamental changes are needed in India and other rapidly developing countries to reduce the causes of climate change. Otherwise, some experts estimate that almost 20 percent of India's total grain production could be lost to floods.

Pachauri has called for "a drastic shift in our lifestyles" to lessen greenhouse gas emissions, and "a clear plan of action to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the short and long term."

Meanwhile, some of the chronically flood-affected have already given up.

"We've had enough. We're going to try somewhere else," said Sanjeet Kumar, another laborer in Muzaffarpur district. He sat by the side of the road with his wife, two daughters and all the worldly possessions they could salvage -- a rusted bike, a sewing machine, and a suitcase -- waiting for a ride to the train station. "I have an uncle out west in Rajasthan. He says it stays dry over there."


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