Araria, Bihar, 02 September 2008: Zafeda Khatum appears eerily calm for a young mother who has just lost her eight-hour-old baby. The 18-year-old maintains a stoic silence even as her family members clamour around to explain how she lost her firstborn son to the ice-cold waters of the Kosi River.
They tell the story of how Zafeda and the rest of the family were abruptly awakened Saturday night when water began filling their shanty in Araria district after the river rose several feet overnight. Flood waters have wrecked havoc in large parts of the eastern Indian state of Bihar since an embankment ruptured at Kusaha in neighbouring Nepal on August 18.
Zafeda, who was eight months pregnant, went into premature labour after she and her family were forced to abandon their home, livestock and crops. After wading through freezing water and reaching higher ground, she gave birth to her son.
Zafeda is not alone – the floods have affected almost 3.3 million people in Bihar. Known as the ‘Sorrow of Bihar,’ the Kosi River has a history of unleashing wide-scale devastation. It affects a largely marginalized population, many of whom survive on about USD 0.46 a day.
“Even without the current floods, the situation in Bihar is challenging. Already vulnerable groups could be pushed over the edge by this crisis,” said Mukesh Puri, a UNICEF Emergency Specialist brought in from Delhi to help coordinate emergency support.
Zafeda and her family are lucky to have escaped the rising flood waters. Aerial views of the worst-hit districts of Supaul, Madhepura, Saharsa and Araria reveal many families have sought shelter on top of buildings, railway lines and other raised platforms. News reports estimate that 500,000 marooned individuals have been evacuated and 198 relief camps have been set up to date.
Desperate villagers have scrambled to get their share of food airlifted in by the Indian Air Force by helicopter. Many of the rescued women now in relief camps say that very little of the airdropped food reached their children or themselves.
The district administration has set up camps providing food, water and medical supplies. Polythene sheets for tents have also been distributed to those rescued. UNICEF has supplied bleaching powder to purify water, oral rehydration salt (ORS) packets, disposable delivery kits, plastic sheeting, Vitamin A supplements and other relief supplies.
Today a maternity hut was erected in one of the largest relief camps in Supaul, with plans in place to set up 40 more within the month.
UNICEF is in the process of procuring additional supplies of essential items, including 100 metric tonnes of bleaching powder; 2 million halozone tablets; 10,000 tarpaulin sheets; 20,000 mats; 20,000 bed sheets; 200,000 ORS packets; 10,000 hygiene kits and ready to use therapeutic foods for 6,000 children with life-threatening severe malnutrition.
In most camps, drinking water is available through hand pumps, but more are needed as the number of displaced persons continues to grow. Additional toilets are also needed to meet the growing demand. Solid waste contamination in the camps and along roadsides poses a risk of water and vector borne diseases in coming days.
Cases of diarrhea are being reported in Araria and Supaul districts by people forced to drink contaminated river water while they were stranded.
Zubeeda Bibi, who gave birth at Bathana relief camp in Araria after she fled her home in Supaul, could not hold back her tears. “Instead of rejoicing at the birth of her first child, she has to share this small tent with 30 other people”, her mother-in-law Shanna Begum, explains. “When it rains, the polythene sheets are redundant.”
The nutrition needs of vulnerable children and women are also a concern. New mother, Premi Devi from Supaul, says she stopped lactating due to the stress caused by the flooding. UNICEF is providing counselling support to mothers like Premi to make sure that their babies continue to benefit from the protection of their mothers’ breastmilk.
As more and more people are rescued, the pressure on the relief camps will continue to grow, making the situation of women and children even more precarious.
“The displaced population will not be able to go back to their homes until the breach is repaired. We are estimating that these people will have to remain in these camps for anything between three to six months,” said Special District Magistrate Sandip Pondrik, in-charge of the rescue and relief operation in Araria. “This will require a huge humanitarian response.”