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India floods raise questions about precautions

With this year's flooding in India especially calamitous — more than a 1,200 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes — experts are blaming the government for failing to strengthen embankments and come up with evacuation plans.
A vendor displays his produce on a flooded road in Ahmadabad, India, on Wednesday. Ajit Solanki / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Each year, the monsoon clouds roll across South Asia and killer floods follow.

With this year's flooding especially calamitous in India — more than a 1,200 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes — experts are blaming the government for failing to strengthen embankments, build needed dams and come up with evacuation plans.

They point to neighboring Bangladesh, a much poorer country where years of preparations helped reduce the scope of this year's suffering.

After devastating floods in 1998 killed 2,379 people and left three-quarters of Bangladesh under water, officials took action. Flood walls were built around the capital Dhaka and a network of mud embankments was erected to protect villages. A permanent flood warning center was set up to issue regular bulletins informing people about the water level in the rivers.

This year's flooding still killed 192 people in Bangladesh. But experts say it could have been worse, noting that a new pilot system to help forecast floods gave thousands of people time to evacuate.

"Our goal is that long-range flood forecasts, for the first time, will consistently reach many rural individuals in Bangladesh who are in jeopardy of losing their homes, businesses, and possibly their lives," said Thomas Hopson, a scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, which helped devise the system.

No such system exists in India, where a broad swath of fertile land stretching along the southern edge of the Himalayas was inundated, displacing an estimated 14 million people in this country of 1.1 billion.

UNICEF said in a statement that millions of malnourished children, the most vulnerable to diseases and infections, are at risk after being stranded by flooding.

"Entire villages are days away from a health crisis if people are not reached in the coming days," said Dr. Marzio Babille, UNICEF's health chief in India. "Children, who make up 40 percent of South Asia's population, are particularly susceptible."

'Fallen like a pack of cards'
With the waters finally receding in the country, the recriminations are rising.

"This calamity is the result of the state government's callousness and the extensive damage shows criminal neglect on its part," said Rabri Devi, the head of the opposition in Bihar, an eastern state that was hardest hit in large part because it was the least prepared.

"Had the money been properly utilized, embankments in north Bihar would not have fallen like a pack of cards," she said.

Other officials in Bihar agreed, saying not enough embankments were built to prevent rivers from flooding. They also said wells were not protected, allowing water sources to be contaminated, and no evacuation plans were in place.

"There is a flurry of activities during floods and once the flood waters recede, the department goes into deep slumber," said a senior official in the Bihar water resource management department, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.

Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi struck back at the criticism, saying the state's lack of preparedness was due to years of neglect during Devi's three terms as the state's chief minister.

Similar situations exist in other Indian states affected by the floods.

In Uttar Pradesh, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has called for a demonstration Friday to protest the state of the embankments, which crumbled under the flood waters, and the poor relief effort, which they said left millions without food and medicine.

Attempts to airdrop clean drinking water to victims there were called off after the packets kept bursting.

But federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil said the state governments were doing the best they could.

"Tasks like these are always formidable. Whatever the state governments are doing is according to the circumstances. The more that is done, the better," he told reporters, while promising more money for disaster preparedness.

India's problem appears to be one of political will, not resources. The country is much richer than Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of 150 million people that lies on the Ganges River delta and has been repeatedly ravaged by floods.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who toured the flooded areas by helicopter Tuesday, asked the federal government for some $790 million in assistance. Of that, nearly all was earmarked for compensation and reconstruction, with little for prevention.

What little preventive steps have been taken have come from international aid groups like the British aid agency Oxfam and U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, which have been working on a community level to prepare villages for the annual flooding.

Working with local groups, they have mapped out villages to look for weak points, found places of refuge and set up rescue teams "so they can better prepare for the next time disaster comes," said Jennifer Poidatz, the head of Catholic Relief Services in India.

But their efforts are on a small scale, she said, and the government needs to take greater steps to really make an impact.

"Getting that larger commitment is critical," Poidatz said. "Systems exist on paper but implementation does not happen for various reasons."