September 03, 2008

Article at Reuters

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Inept response to floods outrages India

PURNEA, India (Reuters) - For several days, Urmi Mahato and her family were glued to the radio and TV, eager for information on rising floodwaters and waiting for the government to tell them whether and when to evacuate their home.

Flood-affected people move to safer places through floodwaters at Kalabalua village of Araria district in the eastern Indian state of Bihar September 2, 2008. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The warning never came, and officials assured there was no danger. Then one morning a wall of water crumpled the river’s mud embankment, swamping the village and sweeping away her family.

“I do not know where to look for them, there is no one to help me,” said the 24-year-old woman, sitting at a government relief camp in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states.

The floods have forced more than three million people from their homes, destroyed 100,000 ha (250,000 acres) of farmland and killed at least 90 people.

Media reports say the toll is at least 10 times higher, after the Kosi river, which originates in Nepal, burst a dam last month and unleashed the worst flooding in Bihar in 50 years.

But the tragedy is not entirely nature’s doing. Experts and aid agencies blame government ineptness for not only failing to warn people but also for mishandling relief.

In the most shocking example, SOS fax messages sent by engineers at the Kosi dam warning of impending disaster were ignored in Bihar’s capital Patna, the Mail Today newspaper said.

The faxes piled up on the relevant bureaucrat’s desk because he was on leave and no deputy had been appointed. No one reacted even when warnings were sent to other officials, the paper said, calling for prosecutions for criminal negligence.

“We have come across such reports, and we will definitely look into this issue once all this is over,” Nitish Mishra, the state’s disaster management minister, told Reuters in Bihar.

“There should definitely be some accountability.”

Anger is mounting and stick-wielding victims have resorted to looting food warehouses and trucks in some areas.

The threat of disease is also rising, but the government says it could take months before people can return home from camps.

The monsoon comes every year and also caused severe flooding in Bihar last year, but authorities admit they were not prepared for the scale of the disaster.

“Neither us nor the people thought such a devastation could happen so suddenly,” said Mishra.

But aid agencies are unimpressed by the speed of the relief effort. Hundreds of thousands of people are still trapped on rooftops, elevated roads or surrounded by water in distant villages, without any food or water.

“On the ground, preparedness is missing in the current response,” said ActionAid’s P.V. Unnikrishnan. “Preparedness cannot be a knee-jerk reaction and currently preparing against disasters is not on the radar of the government.”

After days of delay, India finally stepped up evacuation and relief this week by deploying 14 more columns of army personnel, while three naval companies were also asked to help.

More than 560,000 people have been evacuated, and 200,000 have been moved to government relief camps, officials said.

Environmentalists say the government should have de-silted the river as Kosi, known as the “river of sorrow” for its ability to quickly change course, leaves behind heavy silt and debris.

“The floods have pushed Bihar back to 50 years and authorities should be blamed for a slow response not the river,” said Rameshwar Prasad, a local historian and environmentalist.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said the floods, as well hurricanes in the Atlantic, were reminders of the risks of ever more extreme weather linked to a changing climate.

Indian experts agree, saying the government must wake up to the complex issue of climate change quickly.

“It looks unusual for such heavy rains to hit Nepal and Bihar at the same time and cause floods so regularly,” Sunita Narain, a climate change expert said in New Delhi.

“We don’t have time now, we better get our act together now and prepare to face disasters tomorrow.”