MSF teams reach flood-affected areas in Bihar State, India

An emergency relief team from the humanitarian aid agency, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has reached the areas worst affected by the flooding in Bihar State, India. The team, including a logistician, a water-sanitation engineer, and a medical doctor, are assessing the extent of the humanitarian needs in Araria and Purnea-Madhepura. The team has also brought supplies of non-food items for distribution to the affected population.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister declared the floods as a "national calamity" and appealed to international NGOs for humanitarian support.

MSF has sent four trucks containing supplies of 15,000 tarpaulins, 4,000 blankets, 15,000 jerry cans and chlorine tablets for distribution to those affected by the floods.

The flooding is a result of a break in the Kosi river embankment on the Nepal side on August 20. The break forced the river water to take a new course through the eastern blocks of Supaul district. The break is currently 3km wide and is growing by 200 metres each day.

The government estimates that around five million people have been affected by the flooding and one million people have been displaced.

"We are not talking about the normal monsoon flooding," said Mari-Carmen Violes, MSF Head of Mission in Delhi. "The problem is that the river Kosi has changed its course and the villagers and authorities are totally unprepared for this kind of crisis. There was no disaster management preparation and the authorities have asked for MSF and other organisations to help cope with the disaster."

The severe currents forming across the flooded regions mean that motorized boats are the only safe means of evacuating people. The top priority is a search and rescue operation. There are very few motorised boats available and only 50,000 people have been evacuated so far. The lack of motorized boats also means that it has been very difficult to assess the situation by water. This means that there is very little data available on the numbers of people who have died or are yet to be rescued. Some areas remain totally cut off and stories from those in the makeshift camps indicate that entire villages have been destroyed by the floodwaters with no inhabitants surviving.

These areas are now starting to face acute food shortages. The displaced people are taking shelter in temporary camps, located on open land, embankments and by the roadside. Most people do not have proper shelters, and, because the priority is the search and rescue operations, there is very little organisation in the camps. There is insufficient drinking water available in the camps and those staying in the open are taking river water, which is unfit for drinking. It is estimated that a further 400,000 people will arrive in the camps in the coming days.

The most immediate needs for the population are food provision, plastic sheeting to build temporary shelters, water purification tablets, cooking utensils, buckets and hygiene kits. Medical assistance and oral rehydration sachets are also essential to prevent disease amongst the population.