The New York Times (pg. F5), April 3, 2007
AT RISK FROM FLOODS, AND DEFENSELESS WHEN THE RIVERS RISE
By Somini Sengupta
DATELINE: DHANAUR, India, March 28
Year after year, the Baghmati river swells with the rains and, rushing down from the Himalayas, submerges this back-of-beyond village into utter ruin.
Year after year, it sweeps away cattle and goats. It sends mud houses collapsing back into the earth. It kills dozens of people in and around Dhanaur, and that's during a mild monsoon, like last year, when Pavan Devi's 19-year-old son, Vikas Kumar, went to a communal toilet in the fields and was swept away by a fast-moving stream.
In 2004, the last major flood, the death toll stood at 351 in Bihar state, which is home to this village and many others sitting on some of the most vulnerable floodplains in India.
Their vulnerability is likely to grow. Since 1950, in concert with global warming, monsoon rains over India have increasingly come as heavy downpours rather than gentle showers, Indian scientists reported last year. That pattern is raising the risk of sudden floods.
Cities are prone to peril as well: In 2005, 37 inches of rain in 24 hours crippled the country's commercial capital, Mumbai, killing 400 people.
The picture here in this destitute, crowded corner shows how ill- equipped India remains in dealing with that looming danger, despite its newfound prosperity. Nationwide, about 20 million acres of land are affected by floods each year, according to the government; they affect 4.2 million Indians each year on average, according to Columbia University.
Here in Dhanaur, for nearly three months of monsoon, everyone lives at the water's mercy. The well-off save their firewood and food grains for the annual disaster. The poor beg and borrow to eat, and they camp out on higher ground in tents made of cement bags.
They bathe and defecate in the floodwater. They drink from it, too. Who can afford to boil it before drinking, a father of six named Hira Majhi asked. With prices more than doubling during the rainy season, there is never enough money for cooking fuel, and hand pumps are routinely submerged. Last year, after his 4-year-old son contracted black fever, a deadly disease endemic here, Mr. Majhi rowed for an hour, in a homemade canoe made of water hyacinth leaves. No government ambulances ply here.
The most vulnerable to these annual floods are those who sit lowest on the pecking order. Mr. Majhi, for instance, belongs to a low caste group so poor for so long that they are commonly known as musahars, or the rat-eaters. He is landless. He works on other people's fields, usually only during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Because the land remains under water for so long, there is only one harvest each year. Floods and droughts hit families like his the hardest of all.
The measures taken by the government to adapt to the annual floods are rudimentary at best. Some parts of the road have been built with conduits underneath to let water pass, but the road itself is pocked with gaping craters, and locals say it is usually impassable for weeks at a time during the rains. No embankments have been built; construction upstream was suspended 30 years ago, though it is scheduled to resume later this year. Enterprising villagers have built bamboo bridges.
Last year, for the first time, the government put an early warning system into effect. Local officials went around with a bullhorn, on cycle-pulled rickshaws, warning of imminent floods. But there were no shelters to go to, except the local village school, where there was no drinking water or latrines.
In mid-March, the Baghmati rose up during an unexpectedly early spring flood. In less than a day, it wreaked havoc.
Sunil Kumar, one of the more well-to-do farmers here, lost three acres of wheat, a third of his annual income. He walked across his own soggy field and then across his neighbor's, examining patches of barley and mustard and peas -- all waterlogged and ruined.
"It is our misfortune living here," he said. "There is no system of water control."