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India: Kosi floods 2008 - How we coped! What we need? Perception survey on impact and recovery strategies

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The massive Kosi River floods of August 2008 caused unprecedented loss to lives, livelihoods, infrastructure and property in north-eastern Bihar. Although floods have been a recurring feature in parts of the state, the 2008 floods were not usual. The Kosi burst its embankments and changed course, inundating areas of Bihar that had not experienced such flooding for half a century. About 1,000 villages in five districts (Araria, Madhepura, Purnia, Saharsa and Supaul) were affected, involving three million people, of whom about one million were evacuated.

This perception survey was conducted to document the experiences of affected groups; explore the extent of damage at village and household levels; document impacts on shelter, access to food, water and sanitation, health and education, and livelihoods; identify coping mechanisms of people belonging to different social and occupational groups; and document potential recovery mechanisms as suggested by people. A total of 40 broadly representative villages were surveyed, as well as 820 sample households, of which 377 respondents were women; another 200 respondents from relief camps were selected. Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were held with people belonging to various social groups in 20 out of 40 villages, where household surveys were not conducted.

Since most affected households had not experienced floods for several decades, they were not prepared to respond quickly, which resulted in more loss of life and property. The State also was not prepared to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude. A large number of households did not wait for the Government or outside agencies to evacuate them to safer places, but used their own means.

The study findings suggest that nevertheless the Government played a significant role in rescue and evacuation operations. Government camps, even with minimal facilities, were seen as important and were appreciated because they provided food and shelter. No discrimination was found in disbursement of relief assistance (foodgrains, cash, medicines, clothes) across social groups, including to Scheduled Castes, Muslims and Other Backward Castes. Likewise, very few instances of corruption were reported during the FGDs. On the whole, Government relief was well targeted and managed.

Both the local economy and livelihoods were severely disrupted, and there was massive damage at both village and household levels. Among villages, the losses were focused on roads, public infrastructure, and electricity and irrigation systems, while at the household level, the losses were more in terms of lives, livestock, agricultural operations and employment opportunities. Ill health also contributed to loss of livelihoods.

Almost all households, across social groups (93 percent), reported income losses of more than 50 percent during the first three months after the floods, a very significant observation given that most of the affected people eke out their living by casual labour and agricultural work. Households across social groups also reported the loss of work implements, household goods, stored food, and other items, rending them completely dependent on the Government for relief and rehabilitation.

The valuation of houses damaged stands at around Rs. 880 crores (US$ 195 million). Enormous amounts of goods were lost, including foodgrains and domestic items worth Rs. 400 crores (nearly US$ 88 million) and Rs. 155 crores (US$ 34 million) respectively.