Stone cold after Kosi kills her newborn

September 2nd, 2008 - 11:52 am ICT by IANS  

Araria/Supaul (Bihar), Sep 2 (IANS) For a woman whose eight-hour-old baby died a little while ago, Zafeda Khatum looks surprisingly unflustered. The 18-year-old maintains a stoic silence even as her family members clamour around to explain how she lost her first born to the ice cold waters of the Kosi river that unexpectedly entered her shanty in Araria district of Bihar.They narrate how Zafeda and her family members were rudely awakened to the realisation that the Kosi river, which had already wreaked havoc in large parts of the state since it broke its eastern embankment at Kusaha in Nepal Aug 18, had arisen several feet overnight and had inundated new areas.

Zafeda had tried to wade through the freezing waters and gone into labour immediately after she reached higher ground. The baby died of hyperthermia.

Her deafening silence asks a hundred questions that perhaps will remain unanswered but she is not alone in this calamity that over 2.5 million people in India and about 70,000 people in neighbouring Nepal are braving out.

Known as the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’, the Kosi is a young river that has a history of unleashing widespread devastation. It affects a largely marginalised and economically backward population, many of whom survive on $0.46 a day.

Mukesh Puri, Unicef emergency focal person, said: “Even without the current floods, the situation in Bihar is challenging; already vulnerable groups could be pushed over the edge by this crisis.”

This time, the mighty Kosi has made a new course and hit an unsuspecting population that is not habituated to dealing with massive floods. As rains continue in the Kosi’s catchments, the river is entering newer areas.

In fact, Zafeda and her family are lucky to be out of the water. Arial views of the worst-hit districts of Supaul, Madhepura, Saharsa and Araria reveal that an uncountable number of people are still marooned and are atop buildings, railway lines and other raised platforms. News reports estimate that 400,000 of the 1.1 million marooned people have been evacuated to safer places and 170 relief camps so far.

Food packets dropped by helicopters are the only succour for those awaiting rescue. But the airdropping is not sufficient as television images depict how desperate villagers scramble for whatever is dropped.

Most women who have been rescued and are now in relief camps say that very little of the airdropped food has reached them and their children.

On the relief side, the district administrations have been quick in setting up camps with basic provisions of food, polythene sheets that act as tents, water and basic medical aid. But the camps are already bursting at the seams even though a large number of people are yet to be rescued and brought there.

“The displaced population will not be able to go back to their homes until the breach is repaired. We are estimating that these people will have to remain in these camps for anything between three and six months. This will require a huge humanitarian response,” said Sandip Pondrik, special district magistrate, Araria.

An overwhelmingly large number of rescued people at the nodal Sursar Rescue Camp in Araria district’s Forbesganj block and in Raghopur block in Supaul district were found to be suffering from diarrhoea, cold and fever as they had to drink river water while they were stranded.

Zubeeda Bibi, who gave birth at the Bathana relief camp in Araria after she fled her home in Supaul, could not hold back her tears.

“Instead of rejoicing at the birth of her first child, she has to share this small tent with 30 other people. And when it rains, the polythene sheets are redundant,” says her mother-in-law.

The beleaguered administration is not able to focus on the nutrition needs of children and pregnant and lactating mothers.

Premi Devi from Triveniganj block of Supaul who has stopped lactating, supposedly due to stress caused by the flooding, said she has to give her child powdered gram which is difficult for even grown-ups to digest.

In most camps, drinking water is made available through hand pumps which are insufficient given the size of the displaced population. Toilets at the camps are not sufficient or well-maintained.

A few toilets that were erected in relief camps in Araria are not being used. Solid waste can be seen everywhere in the camps, open grounds and roadsides, posing the threat of water- and vector-borne diseases.

As more and more people are rescued, the relief camps will swell, making the situation of women and children even more precarious.

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