India

India: The Bihar-flood: Millions of traumatized people

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Bihar (INDIA) 24 October, 2008. Two months after the Bihar-flood in India, people are still trying to survive on small islands in the middle of the river, or in crowded camps without clean water, proper food or safe shelter, and stripped of all personal belongings. The journalists and the media attention has are gone, but 2,4 million Indians remain, struggling to survive. "It still looks like the flood catastrophe happened yesterday", says Mathew Mathaikutty, Programme Officer, working for ACT International, the network for faith-based emergency organisations. He is responsible for emergency supplies for 20.000 affected people. ACT has called the the flood "an absolute disaster" and the government has declared the flood a national disaster.

The flood waters have devastated crops, decimated livestock, damaged or swept away houses and disrupted critical facilities. Rescue boats have their limitations in reaching flood hit villages. Heavy rainfall has been exacerbating the situation and now the winter is approaching with the cold weather posing a further challenge for displaced persons. Many older people are unwilling to leave their homes and are consequently exposing themselves to the risk of drowning, falling sick and the possibility of being robbed. Young girls and boys below 18 years are a highly vulnerable group open to exploitation.

Rocketing prices

Children are crying with hunger and some people are eating rice without boiling it. Food prices have tripled. Some families, trapped by the flood waters, have reported having to pay astronomical rates to take a ferry from Birpur to Raghopur, some 15 km away. A litre of milk used to cost 50 cents. Now the price is 3,5 US dollar. A packet of biscuits cost 16 times its normal price.

River changed direction

Indian rivers burst theirs banks every year. On18 August the Kosi river suddenly changed its direction and shifted over 120km eastwards . In the process it has rendered useless more than 300 km of embankments that had been built to control its ever-angry waters. Instead, the enormous river flowed into towns and villages in so-called "flood safe areas". Now, the State Government will move two million people to another "flood safe area", but it is a daunting task to provide land to such a population, in a massively populated country.

From fun to trauma

Shocked people could hardly believe their eyes when the new river begun to rise. Children were amazed, until the realities hit them. Eight-year-old Razia explains: 'At first I was happy to see water around and we played the whole day. But slowly the water level came up to my shoulders." She continues: 'Soon there was no food at home and it was all dark. We could not sleep for the whole night fearing the water would take us away. I will never forget this. Whenever I drink water now, I remember what it has done to us.

Mathaikutty from ACT finds traumatized children wherever he goes. They are scared of water, they have nightmares about what happened when they had to flee. In his many years working with communities facing disasters in India, Mathaikutty has never before seen such a flood. The emergency work will go on for a long period. "People must come back to normal family life, but they have no jobs in the areas they have ended up in. And they have no money," Mathaikutty says.

Sari and pencils

A revised ACT appeal has now been issued, asking donors for close to an additional four million US dollars to meet urgent needs. 1,5 million US dollars has already been spent. Lutheran World Federation and the India-based Casa (Church's Auxiliary for Social Action) coordinate their work through ACT International. They now provide up to 20 000 homeless people with food, health care and basic utensils, from pots and kitchen knife to buckets and saris. Families could not bring any luggage during the evacuation. The children get schoolbooks and pencils, and even footballs, cycle pumps and skipping ropes! That is a part of the therapy to bring them back to normal life.

Facts:

ACT International has spent 1,5 million US dollars on its emergency operations in Bihar, and have this week appealed to its members for another 3,5 million. Two ACT-members are doing the work in the field:

Lutheran World Service (India) works in Saharsa and Madhepura districts in Bihar and provide 10 000 people with

- Food rations

- Water and sanitation

- Distribution of water purifying tablet

- Temporary shelter materials

- Family kits

Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) works in five camps in the districts of Supaul and Madhepura. 10 000 people have received assistance, like

- Baby food, ready-to-eat-portions and hot meals

- Medical treatment for 3 500 people.

- Relief kits with cloths, kitchen utensils, mosquito nets, plastic shelter, bathing soaps etc.

- Children's kit, containing notebooks, school bags, pencils, crayons etc

- Sports materials, to activate traumatized children.

Action by Churches Together (ACT) International is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.

Media contacts:

Michelle Yonetani, Programme Officer, Geneva (office tel: +41 22 791 6035 / mobile:+4179 285 2916 / myo@act-intl.org)

Mathew Mathaikutty, Program Coordinator (Office tel. +91 33 22849094 / mobile: +91 98 30186811 / mathewlws@vsnl.net

Tomm Kristiansen, Communications Officer, Geneva (office tel: +41 22 791 6039 / mobile: +41 79 358 3171 / tkr@act-intl.org)