August 9, 2007 / 1:46 PM / 10 years ago

As floods recede, India looks at rebuilding lives

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By Kamil Zaheer

GAIGHAT, India, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Monsoon flood waters were slowly receding and aid trickling in to devastated areas of north and eastern India on Thursday, while authorities began talking about rebuilding homes and reopening schools.

Officials also promised to learn lessons from the catastrophic flooding that killed more than 583 people in India and Bangladesh in the last three weeks and left hundreds of thousands homeless, exposed and vulnerable to deadly diseases.

However, similar pledges are made most years following the deadly floods that plague the region -- many people in Bihar, one of the worst-hit states this year, will remember suffering similar devastation in the floods of 2002, 2003 and 2004.

This time around, the floods completely destroyed more than 31,000 homes in Bihar and damaged tens of thousands more -- mostly the flimsy bamboo and mud homes of poor farming families.

Another 10,000 homes were smashed in neighbouring Assam state, and vast swathes of farmland were ruined. The state’s relief minister said on Thursday he needed help from international aid agencies.

Satish Chandra Jha, undersecretary in Bihar’s Disaster Management Department, said his department would help fund the rebuilding of homes, and wanted to build them out of brick on higher ground.

Meanwhile thousands of hungry families were still camping out on embankments and roads in makeshift tarpaulin shelters waiting for someone to bring them food and clean water.

"We had nothing to lose but our homes, and we lost those," said 35-year-old Kishan Paswan, a farm labourer from Gaighat hamlet, as he looked grimly at his young daughter holding an emaciated white goat.

There has not been enough emergency food supplies to go around, leading to fights over air-dropped relief packages. There have also been reports of local politicians stealing and hoarding food meant for the homeless.

Police arrested two labourers loading supplies on Thursday at the airport in Patna, Bihar’s capital, for stealing pulses from the food sacks intended for flood victims.

"Their hands should be cut off," shouted an angry relief official as police hit one of them on the back with a bamboo cane as both squatted on the floor.

In Bangladesh, two-thirds of which disappeared beneath the floods, an outbreak of diarrhoea has infected 50,000 people and killed 12, officials said.

Sitting on a highway on the outskirts of Dhaka, the country’s capital, Mohammed Amin said his family had not eaten for days.

"My children wait for me to bring them something to eat, but I am so helpless," he said. "I just turn away my eyes from them in pain and agony."

BACK TO SCHOOL?

Up to 5 million children in Bihar are not able to go to school, UNICEF estimated, as many schools have been flooded out or are being used as shelters.

"Resuming education itself is the best psychological counselling for kids, even if it’s under a tree," said Job Zachariah, acting head of UNICEF in Bihar.

Authorities have also said they were working out what lessons to learn from this year’s flooding, with experts saying global warming is likely to cause even heavier monsoons with more deadly storms in the region.

At the dingy health centre in Gaighat, surrounded by ankle-deep water, Dr Sudhir Kumar suggested buying more boats.

Officials in Patna said they sent out 3,800 boats to help the stranded, but admit they could have done with more.

They also said they wanted to strengthen river embankments, though some experts say they only make flooding worse when they break and stop water from draining away again.

More than 1,500 people have died across India as a result of the monsoon, which began at the end of May, the central government said on Wednesday.

The central government has already given out 12.9 billion rupees (about $320 million) in compensation to 20 states which suffered flooding. ($1 = 40.52 rupees) (Additional reporting by Biswajyoti Das in Guwahati, Krittivas Mukherjee in Mumbai and Serajul Islam Quadir in Aminbazar)




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