Assam floods worsen, army and air force join help mission

August 31st, 2008 - 7:35 pm ICT by IANS  

Guwahati, Aug 31 (IANS) Indian army soldiers and air force helicopters were pressed into service Sunday to rescue marooned villagers in Assam after flash floods displaced more than 500,000 people and left 12 dead, officials said.A government spokesman said the districts of Kamrup, Barpeta, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, and Dhemaji have been the worst hit with an estimated 1,000 villages affected by the current wave of flooding that began a fortnight ago.

“The situation turned frightening Sunday in the Puthimari area of Kamrup district where a breach in an embankment submerged about 30 villages, displacing an estimated 50,000 people,” Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told IANS after visiting the area.

Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters were pressed into service to rescue trapped villagers in Puthimari, about 40 km west of Assam’s main city of Guwahati.

“So far, four people were rescued by an IAF helicopter, while army soldiers using rubber boats and rafts moved to safety several hundred people in the area,” the minister said.

“The district administration has also used all their resources to evacuate and rescue people to safer areas.”

Makeshift shelters were opened in government schools and offices for the displaced villagers. A Central Water Commission bulletin said the main Brahmaputra river and its tributaries were flowing above the danger mark in at least six places.

“So far an estimated 500,000 people have been affected by the floods. We have confirmed reports of 12 deaths so far during the current wave of flooding, most of them in Lakhimpur district,” said B. Pipersenia, principal secretary of the Assam Revenue department.

Thousands of people have been displaced overnight with the surging Brahmaputra breaching a vital embankment along Majuli, South Asia’s largest river island. A water resources department official said at least a quarter of the the 421 sq km island in Jorhat district, 320 km east of Guwahati, was submerged after a breach in a mud embankment.

“There is a severe shortage of food and other essentials in the island with all links to Majuli snapped,” Narayan Goswami, a community leader in Majuli, said by telephone.

“Close to 60,000 people have been displaced after floodwaters entered 50 villages in Majuli with the villagers now sheltered in some highlands,” a district official said.

Majuli, with a population of about 150,000 people, once covered a calm and prosperous 1,500 sq km that was dotted with Hindu monasteries. But in 1950, a severe earthquake shifted the river bed and caused massive silting that in turn led to heavy river erosion, especially during the rainy season. So intense was the erosion that Majuli is reduced to a little over a quarter of its original size and prone to extensive flooding.

The 2,906-km river - one of the longest in Asia - traverses Tibet, India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Every year the monsoon causes the river to flood in Assam, a state of 26 million people. In 2004, at least 200 people died and millions were displaced.

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