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Swollen Ganges uproots northern India

PATNA, India (BP)–The Ganges River, swollen with raging floodwater, sweeps indiscriminately south through the villages and harvest fields of northern Bihar. Grazing land for cattle, fields of rice and wheat and lively Indian villages now are indistinguishable under an expanse of swiftly moving water.

The state of Bihar in northern India shares a border with the south Asian country of Nepal. The Ganges and its many tributary rivers flow through Bihar, from the Himalayan mountain range toward the Bay of Bengal.

The rivers provide an essential water source for the farming villages of Bihar, but these same life-giving rivers can turn fatal, as the month of June typically brings torrential monsoon rains across the country.

“It rains for three months every year, but not continuously, just on and off,” said Elvin Trueb*, an international Christian serving in Bihar. “But it is always raining somewhere.”

With torrential monsoon rains deluging the country from June through August, floods are quite common, but no one can seem to remember a flood hitting Bihar quite as badly as this year.

“This year, the Bihari people are saying that this is pretty much the worst flood that they’ve had in memory,” Trueb said. “There are really large areas in north and northeast Bihar that are flooded.”

Floods occur in this region for two major reasons, Trueb said. One is that the monsoon season saturates the ground and causes the rivers to swell. The second reason is that the snow begins to melt from the Himalayas in Nepal by the middle of August, making its way into the rivers of Bihar on its way south.

The combination of these two factors often causes flooding not just in northern India but throughout Nepal and Bangladesh.

“Bihar is just 100 feet or so above sea level,” Trueb said. “The water just kind of spreads out over an area until a road or something breaks, and then it runs down into the next area.”

About half the state of Bihar has been covered in floodwater this year.

“Bihar is about the size of Georgia,” Trueb noted. “So [the equivalent of] about half of Georgia pretty much is inundated, and we’re talking some pretty serious volume in places.

“One of the local believer’s houses is about 20 feet or so above the floodplain, and the water was up into his house. So we’re talking many, many feet of water. Many houses are completely submerged.”

The Indian press is reporting 335 deaths in Bihar as of Aug. 19. Local residents, however, say the number is likely low.

In a place where identification is nearly impossible, bodies are pulled from the river and immediately cremated. Families may never know what happened to their loved ones. This year, with the flood washing roads and entire villages away, there is no way to know how many people have died.

“Three villages were completely washed away the other day,” a young Bihari man said. “There was no coverage, no news.”

Once the monsoon season wanes, Trueb hopes that within a few weeks the floods will be down far enough for people to return to their homes.

For now, however, masses of displaced people and animals seek shelter from the floods anywhere there is higher ground, many stranded on roofs or in treetops with no source of food or clean water. Some flee to higher ground, mainly along highways, where they set up lean-tos and try to eke out a living as best they can.

“Those people are pretty much living on the side of the road,” Trueb said. “They just have a kind of a lean-to they built with a plastic tarp and a makeshift bed, and that’s where they’re staying. I understand that in those areas there are occasional drop-offs of food from the government. When you move further in, the people are cut off, especially some of the lower-caste folks…. Right now they don’t have any access to clean water; they’re just drinking what’s flowing by.”
*Name changed for security reasons. Kari Wynn is a writer serving in southern Asia.

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  • Kari Wynn*