Bihar floods: Interview with Martin Sloot

How would you describe the situation now in Bihar?

The situation of the people has improved faster than we expected. The floodwaters have receded, and people are leaving the camps and returning to their villages. A lot of aid organizations have come to contribute to the relief efforts, and the government has also done a good job of meeting people’s immediate needs.

What has MSF been doing?

Since mid-September we’ve been working in four districts of Bihar state, districts that were hit hardest by flooding. We distributed essential items to people who were made homeless by the floods – basic things like blankets, clothing, bed nets, plastic sheeting, pots, pans, and soap.

We also sent out mobile clinics to provide primary healthcare to the flood victims. With UNICEF we ran measles and polio vaccination campaigns and also did some work to purify drinking water and treat sewage, in order to prevent outbreaks of disease.

We focused on locations that might have been overlooked by the government and other aid organizations – small camps that arose spontaneously on embankments, or people trapped further in the interior of the state.

What are you doing now?

We’re continuing to check on areas of Bihar where we think there may be flood victims who have been overlooked. We’re also reassessing places where we’re concerned that the aid given may not have been sufficient. But generally we’re finding that people have been looked after, and that for the most part they’re returning to their villages and trying to rebuild their lives.

What are some of the main logistical challenges?

Now that the water has receded, it’s very difficult to get around. Before we were using boats. Now we have to contend with the mud left behind by the receding waters. Cars quickly get stuck, and you can’t walk through it. We have to use tractors.

It’s also difficult to assess and treat people, because they’re rapidly dispersing back to their villages. Ultimately this is a good thing. It means that life is returning to normal.

How is the health of the people who survived the floods?

As I said, things are returning to normal. But normal life in this part of India is not easy at all. Bihar is one of the poorest states in India. There is widespread malnutrition, along with other health problems associated with poverty.

People here are very resilient, and the health risks posed by the floods have mostly subsided. But the problems that were there before still persist.

What are people’s main needs now?

People are returning to homes that have been ruined by flooding, crops that have been washed away. They need basic supplies to get their lives restarted. They need to get farming again in order to be able to feed themselves. The cold season is coming, so they need adequate shelter, warm clothing and blankets.

What are MSF’s plans in Bihar?

The emergency is over and there are plenty of other groups working here, so we’re going to gradually wind down our activities in Bihar. We don’t want to duplicate the efforts of other organizations.

Nevertheless we will continue distributing essential items to the most affected people, to help them restart their lives. We will also monitor possible disease outbreaks in the area.

We’ll be assessing our response in Bihar and looking at how we can best prepare for future emergencies.