With floods and droughts, millions at the mercy of the rains


Kathmandu : Nearly a thousand people have been killed by floods in Nepal, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam in India, and in Bangladesh. Almost all of southern and interior western India is grappling with water scarcity, with mega-city Chennai being supplied by water trains, one woman in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh killing another at a water queue. Women elsewhere in the state have been blockading a highway because they have not had drinking water for a week.

Meanwhile, the Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal, and the northeastern states, as well as the neighbouring country of Bangladesh, are experiencing massive floods. In Assam, the Brahmaputra has flooded 95% of the Kaziranga National Park – home of the one-horned rhino and a World Heritage Site. The road link between north-eastern India and the rest of the country is flooded.

All 56 gates of the barrage on the Kosi river at the India-Nepal border have been opened to prevent catastrophe. The result is floods engulfing all of north-eastern Bihar in downstream India.

The June-September monsoon that brings 80% of the annual rainfall to South Asia is running late and has now stalled. About half of India’s 600 million farmers have not been able to sow their main crop of the year – they do not have irrigation facilities and are dependent on rain. Official figures compiled by the central agriculture ministry show a 33% deficit in sowing.

Aurangabad in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, western India, is reporting that water reservoirs are 99.7% empty.

The monsoon is not scheduled to reach Pakistan yet, but with contiguous parts of India – Punjab and Rajasthan – reporting tardy rainfall, alarm bells have started to ring. Authorities in Pakistan are reporting that water reservoirs in southern Punjab and Sindh are almost dry.

In Chennai, despite the arrival of two water trains with much fanfare, over 30% of the six million residents are seeing water in community taps only once in three days, not to talk of water reaching home. Night-long queues at these taps have become a must.

In smaller cities throughout southern, western and central India, municipal water supply has almost collapsed. Eastern India is not facing such a scarcity of water for domestic use, but farmers in semi-arid regions – such as Purulia and Birbhum districts of West Bengal and adjoining areas in Jharkhand – are looking at crop failure as the rainfall remains scanty. Managers at thermal power stations in Jharkhand are contemplating forced closure for a time, since there is almost no water to wash the coal before use.

At the same time, relief centres for flood-displaced people are being opened throughout southern Nepal, north-eastern Bihar, the Alipurduar region in West Bengal and all along the Brahmaputra valley in Assam. At last count, over seven million people had been displaced.