Another year of poor flood response in northeast India
Floods and landslides caused by heavy rainfall in India’s northeast have killed at least 56 people and displaced almost 2 million people, but unfortunately this is nothing new.
Every year, the almighty monsoon rains pound this remote region, which includes Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. They fill up the giant Brahmaputra river and its tributaries until they swell beyond capacity, inundating hundreds of villages and farms and leaving behind death and destruction.
It’s the same story every year. And it’s often more than once during the season, which lasts from June to October. This is the third wave of floods this season.
But in this day and age – when aid charities, policy makers and development experts speak frequently of climate change and the need to be better prepared for disasters – why are we still seeing millions of people uprooted in Assam as torrents of water submerge their crops and homes?
We may not be able to stop nature’s fury, but surely we can do more to prevent deaths and provide adequate relief to suffering people?
Less than 20 percent of those affected in the tea-growing state of Assam alone have been accommodated in relief camps. Hundreds of thousands have been living out in the open in makeshift shelters for over a week now.
Aid and rescue workers here in Assam, the worst flood-affected region, blame the government’s poor policies on disaster preparedness and management. Humanitarian groups say that, while there is a local disaster management agency in place, led by a minister, it is inept.
NO STRATEGY, NO EQUIPMENT
The state has more than 30 charities working to improve disaster preparedness and management, yet the authorities hardly interact with them.
The Northeast Space Application Centre has its own early warning system based on satellite photographs, and shares its data on weather patterns and flood risks with each of the eight northeastern states.
But Abdul Hasib, team leader of the Inter Agency Group, an umbrella organisation of aid agencies in Assam, says it’s unclear what is done with this data.
“The dissemination of information from the headquarters does not take place, so people in vulnerable areas cannot be evacuated ahead of the disaster,” he says. The government is not interested in disaster preparedness and does not have an effective disaster management strategy, he adds.
Other aid workers agree that, given the predictability of devastating floods every monsoon season, the level of preparedness is abysmal.
Local districts often lack proper equipment such as mechanised boats for search and rescue and delivering aid supplies to marooned villagers, or even tarpaulin sheets for shelter.
ABSENT LEADER, ABSENT AID
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has also been criticised for weak leadership in managing the latest floods, leaving his officials unsure what to do. Gogoi was on a tour in Japan for nearly a week.
He was also abroad in the United States during the floods in June and July that claimed over 100 lives and left 400, 000 people homeless.
Angry people have confronted ministers visiting them in temporary shelters, shouting slogans.
“We had to buy food and clothes of our own. No help from the government has come,” Dalimi Patir, a woman who has been living in a shelter by the roadside for the past few days with her family of six, told me.
Officials came to visit her with only a kilogramme of rice and small packets of oil and salt. “Can a family survive with that amount of food for few days?” she asked.
Thankfully, water levels are now receding. But I fear few lessons will be learned by the state authorities, and next year I will be reporting once again on yet another round of devastating floods in India’s northeast.
(Reuters correspondent Biswajyoti Das wrote this blog from Guwahati in Assam)
(AlertNet is a humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)