'Grim' conditions as India flood rescue hits crucial stage
Chandpur Bhangaha, India (AFP) Sept 4, 2008
Efforts to rescue tens of thousands of villagers cut off by a monsoon-swollen river in northern India were reaching a critical stage Thursday, aid workers and evacuees said.
Those who have escaped Bihar state's worst-hit areas say food is running out and people are drinking the muddy flood water, while aid workers speak of "grim" conditions.
"We haven't had anything to eat for five days," said Murti Shah, who finally got out of her village in worst-hit Madhepura district after spending two weeks on a school's rooftop munching through the family's supplies of grain.
"We drank the flood waters."
Asked if she had boiled the water first, she looked amazed.
"How would we boil it?" she asked. "We have no utensils. We have nothing. Everything is under water."
Many villagers in the area, submerged after the Kosi river breached its defences upstream in Nepal and swung east, have lost their lives trying to make it to safety.
"My uncle was on a tree and when he tried to get down he was washed away by the current," said 30-year-old Anil Kumar Bhaskar, who also made it out Wednesday on a navy boat. "Later we found his body in the reeds."
State government warnings to evacuate when the river first broke through its flood walls have kept the death toll low, with some 100 people drowned so far even though the floods have affected at least three million.
Over 700,000 people have been evacuated from flooded areas, but rescuing the tens of thousands more villagers still stranded in the coming days is vital to prevent more deaths, rescuers and survivors say.
"We are getting to areas we haven't been able to get to before," said Rajeev Ahluwalia, an assistant commander with India's National Disaster Response Force, set up after the 2004 tsunami.
"It's very grim. The people there are in pathetic conditions," he said as he set off on a final rescue for the day late Wednesday afternoon.
Air-drops of food and other emergency aid have also been stepped up.
"We are dropping quite a bit of relief now to people who have moved to embankments and railway lines for temporary shelter," said Indian Air Force Group Captain Jagdir S. Johar, who is overseeing airborne aid operations.
Although the Indian government is working overtime, deploying rescue squads from its army, navy and disaster response force, villagers and aid agencies say more is still needed.
"The government must change gear and go on a war-footing to provide relief," the anti-poverty group ActionAid said.
"There is a pressing need to step up efforts to reach the unreached."
Several of the villagers only just making it out by boat said these were the first rescue vessels they had seen since their homes were flooded on August 18.
Others on an embankment in Chandpur Bhangaha district -- one of the worst-hit areas in the east of Bihar -- said they had walked there to plead for rescue teams to be sent to their villages.
"No boats have come to my village," said Jawahar Yadav, a man of around 60 who said hundreds of people are waiting to be rescued there.
"All our drinking water taps have drowned. I walked through the water to ask for help."
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