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Last Updated: Friday, 28 May, 2004, 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK
Indian villagers tame floods
By Zoe Cacanas in Bihar

Mock evacuation
Rescuers practise evacuating villagers and their livestock by boat
"We used to dread the rainy season," recalls Heera Paswan.

"It was a time of fear and anguish and we did not know whether we would survive each year."

Mr Paswan is a resident of the village of Kothiya Balwahi, near Darbhanga in the northern Indian state of Bihar.

The annual floods still force Mr Paswan, and the 90 families that share his village, out of their homes from July until the end of August.

During that time, everything stops. There is no school and very little work.

Sheela Devi, 45, who sells tea from her stall in the centre of the village, says: "When the floods come, my hut falls away and my five children get sick."

Villagers relocate to a high road half a mile from their homes where they camp under tarpaulin shelters until water levels subside.

Escape route

Until two years ago, the waters claimed the lives of around six people and 10 livestock each year through disease and drowning.

Kumri Devi, who lost her mother during recent floods
The water levels only go up to our chests now, so it is easier to get out
Kumri Devi

Many families were unable to salvage all their supplies from their homes when the floods came and relied on grain donations from the government and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to survive.

Half a million people were displaced in Bihar and Assam, further to the east, in the severe floods of 2002.

But new measures, introduced by local people, have meant that the areas have been able to curb their losses.

With earth donated by local landowners, residents have raised and strengthened the low path through the village, providing a safer evacuation route taking people, livestock and supplies - often overnight and at short notice - to dryer land.

One female resident and mother of four, Kumri Devi, says: "When the bridge was built, we gave two days of free labour getting the mud for it. The whole family was there.

"We're more organised now that we have an access and exit route. The water levels only go up to our chests now, so it is easier to get out."

Flooding occurs when the Bagmati river, which borders Kothiya Balwahi, is swelled by flash floods from Nepal.

Those flash floods, combined with the deluge of the local rainy season, make the river burst its banks and submerge the village.

Mr Paswan, 46, has personal experience of the hazards on the path out of the village.

"Two years ago my mother had a fever and palpitations," he said.

"In the evening she had to be taken to hospital and we carried her - four of us - in a bamboo cot.

"It was dark and muddy because it was monsoon time and the water was beginning to come into the village.

"One of us slipped on the track and my mother fell from her cot. She died shortly afterwards."

Map of homes

With help from the Delhi-based NGO, the Discipleship Centre, a partner of the UK development charity Tearfund, evacuation routes by water have also been prepared.

Across the Bagmati river from Kothiya Balwahi are three more villages - home to 200 families - who are marooned when the river floods.

A mother and child collect water from a new village pump
The villages have worked together to form rescue teams that use boats to help evacuate livestock and people across the river to Kothiya Balwahi, from where land access is now easier.

A map of the homes in the area allows rescuers to find elderly or disabled people who need to be brought to safety first.

To protect against disease when water levels are still high, two new hand pumps have been installed, raised above the water level to prevent contamination.

Sheela Devi says: "Before, we drank water from the river or from the old pumps which were below water level, and my children became unwell with skin and stomach problems."

The local panchayat (village council) leader, Safdar Imam, who controls 13 villages, including Kothiya Balwahi, says: "Last year, there was no loss of life in the three villages in which these changes are being made and only two to five livestock died.

"There's a raised awareness of warning signs and flood levels."

But villagers say life still revolves around floods in Kothiya Balwahi - a village where hazard has shaped the land.

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