Bihar flood with coming rains and continued COVID-19 pandemic

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By Asif Shahab,Suchita Jain and Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava[1]

At SaciWATERs Hyderabad, we are doing a project in Bihar on ‘Civil Society voices, vulnerable communities and localized platforms for addressing water quality challenges’ funded by European Union Project since January 2018. We took a dig into the current flood situation of Bihar since it is affecting our fieldwork activities even more now after the 5 months of COVID-lockdown-unlockdown periods’ effect besides being concerned about the fellow citizens. We share a perspective on the Bihar Flood as how it is impacting the lives and livelihoods of the local people, apart from the running on-ground relief activities by several governmental and non-governmental organisations and research activities. The subject of impact of flood and flood management is extensively written in the context of Bihar, yet the situation seems to be unchanging rather deteriorating on the ground. Now since there is forecast of more rains and the COVID-lockdown also seems not ending soon given the current situation in the country and in Bihar particularly, our perspective concludes with some directions on building more resilience.

The flood in Bihar is an annual feature with a low or higher intensity. This year the state became more vulnerable amid the overlapping menace of COVID-19 pandemic. Bihar has received around 706.4 mm rain so far against normal rain of 484.6 mm between June 1 and July 28 which is 46% above the normal. The River Mahananda has observed a rise of almost two meters at Taiyabpur in the Kishanganj region. The Kishanganj, Purnia and Katihar districts are put on the high alert now. The River Kosi is flowing above the danger mark already. The River BurhiGandak has already inundated parts of Khagaria, Muzaffarpur and Samastipur regions. In the meantime, floodwaters from Gandak, which had breached its embankment at three places in East Champaran and Gopalganj regions, entered into some more areas as we write. The Meteorological Department has forecasted moderate to heavy rains in Nepal and the catchment areas of different rivers thus may further exacerbate the flood situation in the North Bihar region. The state government has put its machinery on alert for safety of the embankments.

As on July 30, 2020 around 40 lakh people are affected by the floods in 972 panchayats of 108 blocks of 14 districts across the State. According to the government source, 11 people have lost their lives after the torrential rains coupled with record discharge of barrage water into the northern Bihar rivers triggered major flooding; in addition, a whopping number of 3 lakh plus people (3,16,661 as per the source) are displaced by the flood distress as it always happen in most floods. The distress of displacement comes with serious problems of livelihood andeveryday living for which there can be better disaster preparedness than we have in place, given the fact that the flood is an annual phenomenon, so is the drought which also suffers from resilience building.

Flood victims are facing lack of safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene issues, and the threat of water-borne diseases. Flood resilient WASH infrastructure such as toilets three to four feet above the ground at flood shelters could be helpful in maintaining hygiene especially during this pandemic situation. Women and girls are the most vulnerable among all; with no access to safe toilets or privacy, not only is their safety at risk, they are also becoming susceptible to various water-borne diseases. In disasters like floods in Bihar, ignorance towards mainstreaming gender dimension becomes elusive. Besides women, children are also bearing the brunt of flood impact in Bihar to an exceptional level. During floods minors are sometimes parted from their families and become victims of trafficking. The urgent needs for children besides clean water andhygienic food supplies to prevent spread of the diseases, is to provide them with clean and safe places in the evacuation centers for playing and education.

Governance

17 teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and 13 teams of the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) have been pressed into service by the State government in the flood affected districts. Home guard personnel too have been deployed to aware the villagers about protect themselves in the time of flood and COVID-19. The state government has set up 19 relief camps and 989 community kitchens. Air dropping of food packets in Darbhanga, Gopalganj, and East Champaran is underway. Three helicopters of the Indian Army have been deployed for relief operation in 3 districts. 1143 boats have been sufficiently deployed in flood-affected areas. Besides, 6,000 INR is given to flood-affected people as Gratuitous Relief as per the standard of procedure.

Flood and COVID-Lockdown- Exacerbated Doubling Risk

All District Magistrates across Bihar have been intimated by the Bihar State Disaster Management Department to make necessary arrangements for masks and sanitizers at relief camps along with social distancing. However, with the constraints of the spread of the corona virus, the flood in the state at the time of a pandemic has come as a twin challenge. It has become almost impossible to adhere to the social distancing guidelines with the district administration also looking the other ways of relief in the flood hit areas. People are moving in flood-affected areas and have great difficulty in adhering to the social distancing norms besides they are becoming clueless and beyond control by the ever changing laws of lockdown and unlockdown.

There has been exceptional rise in Covid-19 cases in Bihar which has crossed 45,000-mark. The overarching worry for the Government is to flatten COVID curve which is intruding in the flood affected relief camps and deluged villages. People affected by flood in the low-lying areas are making their way to the government relief camps but social distancing and protection against COVID is hardly seen rendering into a complex situation. In this complexed situation, there is an urgent requirement on the part of the state as well as the non-state actors to take immediate measures and acknowledge multiple risks emanating from overlapping hazards. Collective action at the community level is needed to develop co-benefit strategies for reducing combined risk of flood and COVID.

Way Forward

It is indeed challenging times for the Government and the people of Bihar to deal with the flood as well as the COVID, but at the same time it is also an opportunity to rise to the occasion. In a historical move of the development of Bihar Disaster Risk Reduction Roadmap (2015-30), the Government of Bihar announced that the disaster victims have first rights over government funds. As a result, the Disaster Management Department has made rigorous preparations in advance for the amount of funds required.

Another silver lining in this complex and curse situation is that the heavy monsoon rain represents a large amount of drinkable water falling on flood victims and relief camps facing intense dearth. It provides a rationale to venture out and harvest rainwater as much as possible. The MeghPyne Abhiyan (Hindi for ‘Cloud Water Campaign’) is a network of local NGOs and concerned citizens in Bihar who are making efforts to promote such propositions in the region. They promote the adoption of techniques developed around a fundamental idea: harvest the rainwater in a hygienic manner and store up in safe, durable facilities. Bearing in mind the hindrance of crowded relief camps and deserted houses, the technology is easy and only demands minimal, easily available resources, such as bamboo, polythene sheets, ropes and sand. At times, the setup is as simple as a polythene sheet tied to a bamboo frame (like the roof of a typical shelter in a relief camp). Such small but more impactful resilience building approach to floods would reap maximum co-benefits in terms of ensuring water availability at the time of twin edged crisis of the other annual phenomenon drought besides providing safe water during the flood. At SaciWATERs, though we are currently looking at the Arsenic issue in Bihar through our European Union project, we are open to collaborations with government and non-government organisations in any flood-drought and other water distress situations like access, gender, children and we can be reached easily at http://saciwaters.org/contact.html.

[1]Asif Shahab and Suchita Jain are Associate Fellows at SaciWATERs, Hyderabad;   Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is Executive Director at SaciWATERs and Partner Consultant at Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad

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