Monday, July 07, 2003

Million homeless in Assam floods

More than a million people are now homeless as flooding worsens in India's north-eastern state of Assam.

Waters have risen further in the past 24 hours, sweeping away 16 villagers and submerging 500,000 hectares of cropland.

More than 5,000 villages have been affected by the floods.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said the army had been called out in several districts to help the civil administration rescue stranded people.

"It is raining incessantly in the catchment areas of Assam's major rivers like the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The rivers are flowing above the danger mark in many places," Mr Gogoi said.

People will start dying of hunger and disease unless essentials are air-dropped

Dilip Saikia, Assam lawmaker

The situation was worst in Assam's northernmost district of Dhemaji, where more than 200,000 people were made homeless when several embankments gave way to the waters of the Gai and Jiadhol rivers.

The homeless have set up makeshift shelters made of tarpaulin and tin.

Residents there have complained about haphazard aid operations.

Local politician Dilip Saikia told the AFP news agency: "People will start dying of hunger and disease unless essentials are air-dropped and medical teams rushed in to treat people suffering from malaria and other water-borne ailments."

Assam health officials say the outbreak of malaria has killed 71 and infected 15,000 more.

Bangladesh toll

In Dhubri district, on the border with Bangladesh, the situation was also critical with motor launches pressed into service for rescue work.

Rail and road communications throughout Assam have been disrupted.

In the Kaziranga National Park, home of the endangered one-horned Indian rhino, large swathes of forest land were submerged, forcing the rhinos to flee upland into the Mikir Hills and making them vulnerable to poachers.

Weather officials said the situation would worsen as rains were continuing in the Himalayas and surrounding hills.

"We expect more devastation in the next couple of days," said Assam's revenue minister Mithias Tudu.

In Bangladesh, the Daily Ittefaq newspaper reported an unofficial death toll there of 65.

At least 14 of the country's 64 districts had been hit.

Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia has held emergency talks but was told by officials that the aid situation was under control.

However, weather officials fear the worst is still to come.

The Bangladeshi government meteorological forecast is that rain will be at least 20% heavier in July than normal for the month.