Incessant rains in the northern region of the densely populated state of West Bengal in eastern India have led to the flooding of hundreds of villages this week. Several rivers, including river Ichhamati, have overflowed.
Since the floods began last week, about 50,000 mud houses have been damaged and nearly 650,000 people have been rendered homeless, according to rediff.com, an Indian news website.
State authorities have set up 442 shelters for the homeless. An Inter Agency Group of INGOs and local network groups, of which Oxfam is a key member, is closely monitoring the situation from the ground, and will produce a report in the next few days to outline action to be taken if needed.
Bihar and Assam
In Bihar and Assam, the flood situation continues to improve. Floodwaters are receding and people are slowly returning to 'normal' life.
In some parts of Bihar people continue to live on embankments because their lands are still inundated, especially in district Sitamarhi.
Stagnant water persists in both the states of Assam and Bihar. This has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other water-borne disease. There is a high-risk of diseases resulting from unhygienic practices.
Approximately 33 million people (UNDP estimates) have been directly affected in Bihar and Assam and most are still without visible means of livelihood.
Our flood response had reached 25,000 of the most vulnerable affected families in the states of Bihar and Assam, covering approximately 125,000 people.
The next phase of rehabilitation, to continue until November 2004 with funding from European Commission Humanitarian Organisation (ECHO), is due to begin this month.
This response will benefit approximately 15,000 families (75,000 people) in Assam (districts Marigaon and Dhemaji) and Bihar (districts Madhubani, Samasthipur and Sitamarhi).
The core intervention areas will include food security, livelihoods, public health, water & sanitation (WATSAN), advocacy and disaster preparedness.
Given the nature and extent of damage caused by the floods, it is envisioned that there will be a need to address more long-term rehabilitation work, post November.
The political situation in the two states has been calmer in the past week with no larger fallout of some violent incidents reported. In Assam, for example, four ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam, a revolutionary political organisation) members were killed in two separate incidents near the Assam-Meghalaya border on the 15 September. Given the political situation, there is continued need for caution in response and rehabilitation work.
Advocacy and lobbying
Access to government welfare programmes by people living in poverty and continued emergency support to flood affected communities in Bihar is being raised in intra-agency co-ordination meetings.
We are also focusing on issues concerning accessibility, quality and quantity of relief distribution among affected communities in these meetings. This opportunity has been used to introduce Sphere Minimum Standard in relief distribution, as well as its general application.
An advocacy action plan on flood management has been developed and is under discussion.
Media attention has also been successfully focussed on the need for proper flood management in Bihar and a similar exercise is planned for Assam later this week.
The unusual low-lying depression, which caused wind and continuous rains for a week from 12 September, has now cleared. Parts of the country which were not affected by the July floods have now come under water as a result of these rains rains. Significant areas along the coast remain waterlogged and the rain-fed floods have done extensive damage to the newly planted rice crops.
The Capital city of Dhaka was also flooded last week due to the non-stop rains. The government declared 14 September a holiday as swirling knee-deep waters held up people and traffic.
This flooding was caused by poor drainage and it displaced thousands of people from the low-lying areas in Dhaka. The waters are now receding though several areas continue to remain waterlogged.
The Flood Forecasting Warning Centre indicates rising water in some coastal areas but decreasing levels in the Brahmaputra and Jamuna Basins. The Brahmaputra river is not expected to flood again this year but it is too early to rule out flooding of the Jamuna river.
It is not yet possible to accurately assess the damage from these floods on people's livelihoods and assets. Added to this is the fact that victims of river erosion often migrate without trace.
The political situation in the country is now relatively peaceful though there is close monitoring while the inquiry into the grenade attack on the Opposition leader in August continues.
Following on from our immediate response to flood affected populations, we have begun distribution of fodder and seeds as well as construction of latrines and tubewells in the flood affected villages.
Last week's bad weather had stalled the distribution in Shariatpur but it continues in other locations. Oxfam is planning a major rehabilitation programme to support tens of thousands of people in rebuilding their lives.
Story from the field
Baleshwar Mukia is a father of seven living in Durgauli village, district Madhubani, in Bihar, India.
He says that what affects him the most is the aftermath of the floods and not the flood itself. Supporting a large family is his responsibility and even though his elder children are able to work, he still needs to support the younger ones.
During the flood the family managed to climb trees and save themselves from the devastation, but Baleshwar Mukia lost his house and most of his livestock.
He is now finding it difficult to feed his surviving two water buffaloes given the poor availability, and high expense, of fodder.
Mukia is gravely concerned about what is going to happen to him and his family in the wake of the news that water levels are rising again in the nearby Kosi River.