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Story Publication logo October 5, 2007

Floods Devastate Northern India State


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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

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A young girl guides her mother and new-born sister back to their home, cut off by flooding.

Muzaffarpur, India -- Looking out over gray waters that have inundated the rice paddies that are his livelihood, Bhavat Nagar swore no flood he could recall came close to the latest monsoon deluge that 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."

His reaction was replayed by dozens of landless farmers in northern Bihar state, the region hit worst by flooding this year in South Asia, designated by the United Nations as "the worst in living memory." More than 20 million people have been affected and at least 4,000 have died throughout the region (700 in Bihar alone), while scores remain missing.

Mismanagement and corruption within the Bihar government are largely to blame for the lackluster response to the 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 grim prospects for India's long-term stability.

Jacques Diouf, director general of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, has warned that even a small temperature increase could cause destruction of vast swaths of the country's farmland, affecting food production and further impoverishing desperate workers like Nagar, who live off the land. Each year, about 200,000 people leave Bihar searching for work, according to the American India Foundation, a development agency with offices in New York and Santa Clara.

Flooding has submerged more than 40 percent of Bihar, and Relief Commissioner R. Srivastava, citing government figures, said rainfall in July was five times higher than the monthly average over a 30-year span. A government report indicated that one-third of the country as a whole has had higher than average rainfall so far this year.

"It's an every year phenomenon, so there's nothing special about flooding" in Bihar, said Srivastava, mentioning disastrous 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 this month, he said, a scenario that will keep thousands of laborers unemployed and dependent on handouts from the state and aid agencies. Some farmers have taken out loans at usurious interest rates and could wind up as indentured workers, some observers say.

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, rising sea levels and falling 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 August, a man who joined a protest over food shortages was beaten to death by police.

But most of the people seemed resigned to the hardships. And the vast majority of destroyed villages are in low-lying areas inhabited by Dalits, or "untouchables," who aid officials say are accustomed to hardships that come with living on the margins of society.

"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" who fail to help.

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

Graft is said to be systemic 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 contracts to build river embankments that have worsened flooding, 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 pressure forces embankments to break, the runoff wreaks havoc on poor people living nearby.

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, Srivastava says he plans to avoid the prohibitive cost of stocking emergency relief posts in areas subject to flooding.

Using a 30-year database, he said, the government can pinpoint villages most likely to be flooded, factor in the population and determine how much food aid is needed in advance. And to quiet state fears of losing money when perishable food goes unused, he says it could be auctioned off at a small loss that will be ultimately be recouped because hefty transport costs for army helicopters will be avoided.

The state's Chief Minister Sri Nitish Kumar has proposed cooperating with neighboring Nepal to build a dam that will 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 maintain that more fundamental changes are needed in India and other rapidly developing countries to reduce the causes of climate change.

A study released this week showed that two of the 10 most polluted industrial sites are in India; a recent survey by the World Health Organization found that India and China account for about 38 percent of deaths worldwide caused by environmental health problems.

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." Otherwise, he says, some experts estimate that almost 20 percent of India's total grain production could ultimately be lost to floods.

Kumar, the chief minister, has been an outspoken presence in flood areas, pledging to remain on what he called a "war footing" to help rural victims and punish officials who shirk their duties or siphon off supplies.

Nevertheless, some victims appear to have had enough.

"We're going to try somewhere else," said Sanjeet Kumar, a Muzaffarpur laborer as he sat by the side of a road with his wife, two daughters and all the worldly possessions that they could salvage - a rusted bike, a sewing machine and a suitcase. "I have an uncle out west. ... He says it stays dry over there."


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