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Last Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Aid worker diary: Indian floods
Devastating monsoon rains have submerged thousands of villages in northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

In India, as flood waters recede, aid agencies, non-governmental organisations and governments are stepping up their efforts to help the thousands who have lost homes, livestock and livelihoods.

Ian Bray, from Oxfam, has kept a diary of his experiences.

MADHUBANI: 16 August

It's raining heavily this morning and there's no hint of a break in the clouds. We're told there's a possibility that the town might get flooded today as the water is nearly crossing a nearby joint railway and road bridge - a bridge where traffic has to travel down the railway line.

Madhubani floods
Agriculture has suffered badly in Madhubani district

Manish Kumar Agrawal, who is in charge of Oxfam's relief effort here, is getting a little restless because the translator I need won't be turning up for about 45 minutes and this will delay our departure.

Manish is a veteran of relief work in India and has two mobile phones on the go. He's organising trucks, warehouses and where to get money changed. I foolishly didn't come with enough rupees and no-one knows where I can change US dollars in town - Madhubani is no tourist trap. The hotel management is asking for payment for the room.

The rains call it a day and we're off without the translator as the 45 minutes turned into an hour and a half and there was still no show. We first have to pass by another organisation Oxfam supports in the area called Abhigyan Disha to pick up stationery for tomorrow's relief distribution.

The vast majority of this village are Dalit - so-called Untouchables... the floods have taken away their chance of working on the land

Abhigyan Disha's office is just one room at the side of an open courtyard. It's like an outhouse of a big house that has seen better days. They have a room within the room that is raised off the floor by a couple of feet in case of floods.

I keep slapping my legs as mosquitoes are biting. The fans in the office are put on and what must be an insect repellent is plugged into a socket near me. The translator turns up and as we board the 4x4 there is great concern about the back of my leg that is covered in insect bites I got two days ago. It is pretty spectacular. Hot mustard oil is recommended. I think I'll stick to the anti-histamine from the jumbo-sized Oxfam first aid kit.

Manish says this is the worst road in the district. Ashok, the translator disagrees. God knows what that road is like. Our progress is very slow. We now pass fields full of water that were relatively dry two days ago. The waters are rising - the idea that this flood is receding is a bit fanciful.

We are going to see how Abhigyan Disha has got on with the preparation for the aid distribution tomorrow. They have organised an army of volunteers to go out into the poorer villages and decide who is entitled to the aid. Those people will be given dockets today with their names on and what they are entitled to receive so as to speed up tomorrow's distribution.

I go out to the village of Keshuli with three of Abhigyan Disha's volunteers, Bina Chowdhary, Bachelal Paswan and Balram Jah. They are using exercise books to register people and hand out the dockets. People have to "sign" for the docket. It is usually a thumbprint though. A person who can read and write in this village is rare.

Villagers surround us desperate to tell us their story. It's pandemonium as everybody wants to speak. A chair is brought from somewhere for me to sit down. The vast majority of this village are Dalit - so-called Untouchables. All are landless and all are without a job now. The floods have taken away their chance of working on the land - not their land, someone else's land - and the flood has come at the worse possible time for them.

This is the major planting season, the time when they earn the most. The best chance to work for a regular stint has gone. It's a cruel blow. I ask if anyone has gone into debt. The answer - more like a chorus - doesn't need translating. The levels of debt sound a pittance, but not for the people of Keshuli. In a good year people can earn up to R5,000 (63). There are few good years.

In the village, some 25 homes were totally destroyed when the flood waters hit and over 100 damaged. One of them, with a heavy-tiled roof, was shorn up with bamboo poles to stop it from collapsing - and for good reason. Earlier today a 35-year-old mother of three, Peramila Devi, died when her weakened house collapsed on her.

Incredibly, not everyone from this village will get aid in tomorrow's distribution. Aid packages are only for the most vulnerable. It is Bina, Bachelal and Balram's job to select the most needy in a sea of need. They explain that they select on whether the house is destroyed or the level of the damage, whether the family's headed by a widow, whether there are pregnant or breast-feeding women, whether people are over 60 or disabled.

"It's very hard to take a decision but we need to decide because of the level of resources we have. It pains me in my heart, but we can only give to the most needy," says Bina.

Abhigyan Disha does not decide on its own what the criteria is for selecting the most needy, but it is done with elected representatives of the community.

If they had more aid to give they wouldn't have to go through this auction of suffering.

Bina tells me that it was seeing the misery of the people caught up in the flood that led her to volunteer. She volunteered in 2004 as well. She is relatively well-off and has a part-time job as an insurance sales woman. Her house was close to being flooded.

On the way out of Keshuli we are called over to see a destroyed home. We have to walk through mud and through a courtyard before we see what is just a damaged thatched roof in the mud. This was home to Reeta Devi, her four children - including a nine-month-old baby - and her 60-year-old mother-in-law. Her total livestock is two goats. She made it onto Bina, Bachelal and Balram's list.

BIHAR: 15 August

India's 60th Birthday. Sixty years to the day when British rule finally ended, and it is decided I should not travel because of security concerns. I'm grounded and gutted.

I should say I have received nothing but overwhelming hospitality and welcome wherever I have gone.

However, in the last two days Bihar District flood victims have been venting their anger and frustration at local authorities because they haven't received relief items.

It may not match Nehru's 'tryst with destiny' moment, but it has a dignity befitting the occasion

While quelling of one of the riots, the police charged the demonstrators, killing one and injuring 25.

With tension rising on such a significant day - and with me being a foreigner who speaks no Hindi - it was thought best not to risk travelling outside the main town.

My Indian colleagues have better judgement than me over this so I stayed behind.

The office of the Bihar Sewa Samiti (BSS) organisation - supported and funded by Oxfam - is festooned with buntings.

A map of India has been painted on the ground near the entrance and there is a flagpole ready for raising the national flag. At the allotted time we file out of the shop for the ceremony.

Binod Kumar, the secretary of the local BSS, stands composed at the front of the flagpole. He sombrely raises the flag and then slowly pulls the rope so that it unfurls. As it does so, petals cascade down.

The national anthem is sung and there are cries of "Long live India" and "Long Live Mahatma Gandhi". It may not match Nehru's "tryst with destiny" moment, but it has a dignity befitting the occasion.

The solemnity is punctured with the cry of "ice-cream" from a seller cycling by.

Local residents move around Bariyarpur village in Begusarai district, Bihar state
Many roads in Bihar have been washed away or simply submerged

In the papers there are reports of further deaths in the floods of Bihar.

Eight people lost their lives yesterday. Seven of them died when the boat they were in capsized. Known as a "country boat", it would have been very similar to the one we travelled in.

Tomorrow, there will be a registration of flood victims so that they can receive a consignment of Oxfam aid in a village about 40km from here.

The roads will be difficult as usual and it will involve a four-wheel-drive and motorbike journey. I can't wait. To take my mind off everything around me, I delve back into Pride and Prejudice.

BISFI SUB-DISTRICT, BIHAR: 14 August

A hearty breakfast of omelette and a spicy naan filled with potato - a nice start to the day and we'll need it.

It's basically very simple things that help poor people cope better when things go bang.

The BSS is going to show us a village where they have been running a "Disaster Preparedness Programme".

The village of Haspura is located in the sub-division of Bisfi, which we visited two days ago. It's the hardest hit area in the Madhubani District of Bihar state.

Broken bridges

We are treated to another display of superb driving skills.

If our 4x4 had an extra coat of paint, I'm sure we would be scraping every other vehicle we passed.

As we proceed, the road gets worse and worse.

Back on dry land, we notice three women carrying fodder for their livestock on their heads - they are walking up to their shoulders in the water towards the road.

It was heavily damaged in the 2004 floods and hasn't been repaired even though a contractor has been hired to fix it.

Fords made up of a carpet of broken house bricks have replaced some of the small bridges. At one of them, the bricks have to be rearranged to allow us to get over.

Eventually the road defeats the 4x4 and we get out and wade thigh-deep through warm, muddy water and continue the journey by foot.

A mile or so later, we reach the BSS sub-office in Bisfi, where we get on the back of motorbikes.

Now the road really does get bad. It seems to be a barely connecting chain of deep holes, broken bricks and, ever so occasionally, a flat piece of tarmac.

The road turns into a causeway slaloming only a few feet higher than the surrounding flooded fields.

But the bikes can only go so far, and once again we get off at a place where a bridge has been washed away.

We jump into a small ferry to take us across.

Back on dry land, we notice three women carrying fodder for their livestock on their heads.

They are walking up to their shoulders in the water towards the road.

Raised houses

Yet another mile by foot and we reach the end of the road, literally.

However, we are no way near the village.

A boat arrives to pick us up. This is one of the boats funded by the Disaster Preparedness Programme, and a fine locally-built boat it is.

Children eat food at a relief camp in a village in Begusarai district, Bihar state (14 August 2007)
Aid agencies have worked hard to prevent a humanitarian disaster

But, like all wooden boats I've known, it leaks.

A young boy begins, with not all that much urgency, to bail water from the boat as we head off for a 45-minute zig-zag across to the village as the heavens open once more.

We make it - feet a little wet, but we make it.

Haspura village was hit by the flood and is now an island.

Out of the village's 268 houses, some 40 to 45 are destroyed.

This might sound a lot, but it would have been more than twice that number if BSS hadn't been working there.

They persuaded the villagers to form a village Disaster Preparedness Committee. The committee functions very well and is made up of 20 villagers - 10 men and 10 women.

In 2004, many of the village houses were flooded by 3ft of water.

In response, the committee and BSS organised for as many houses as possible, 51 in total, to be raised by 4ft. They made raised platforms of pounded earth and built the houses on top of them.

Debts

The rain continues.

Under an animal shelter we meet Chanti Devi, who is a bit intimidated by the attention and shyly covers her face while she tells us about her house, one of those which was raised.

As a result it wasn't flooded this year, though the flood waters came within a foot. So, the village the committee got it just about right.

The best thing about the raised house is that I know my children are safe and they won't be washed away and drowned by the flood
Chanti Devi

Chanti is about 30 years old and married with three children.

The family doesn't have any land and relies on working on other people's farms to earn a living.

With the floods, that option is now closed until October or November.

Her family is now R2,000 (160) in debt.

It doesn't sound very much, but for an agricultural labourer who has no land this is a fortune.

Asked whether the raised house was a good idea, she says: "We don't have many possessions so if we were flooded we would have lost only a few things."

"The best thing about the raised house is that I know my children are safe and they won't be washed away and drowned by the flood."

Committee

We move on and meet the village's Disaster Preparedness Committee and other members of the village.

Under a lean-to roof, a group of about 40 women sit closely together on the floor, their heads covered with their dark red saris. The light is fading due to the clouds and the crowd looking in.

We ask how many people are now in debt due to the floods and there is a unanimous show of hands.

A boy pumps water for another to bathe at a village in Samastipur district, in Bihar state (11 August 2007)
Clean water is a vital resource in the region's flood-affected villages

One of the heads of the committee, Yadav Vishwanath, talks passionately.

He tells us what the committee has been doing since the 2004 floods, such as raising the houses and two village water pumps, running flood warning drills, keeping a food store for emergencies, and ensuring they have the means to rescue people with the wooden boats.

He is particularly appreciative of BSS and Oxfam for the clean water, which he says was the most important improvement.

During this flood there has been no disease - so far anyway - but the village still needs more support.

"We are landless people," he says.

"To save our houses, we need soil to raise them. We don't have any and we need to buy it and we just can't afford it."

Heavy burden

Sadly, all the preparation work wasn't enough. At 0500, when the flood hit the village, the force of the water swept away a 12-year-old boy, who later drowned.

On that distressing note, we leave the village on the boat.

To save our houses, we need soil to raise them. We don't have any and we need to buy it and we just can't afford it
Yadav Vishwanath
Haspura village Disaster Preparedness Committee

At dry land, we happen upon the boy's father, Kishan Kumar.

He says that the tragedy has had a profound effect on his wife.

She is not eating, not talking, not doing anything.

Before facing the return journey, we have a shot of strong milky tea.

At the BSS sub-office, the organisation's staff ask me what my impressions were.

I take a hard breath to keep my upper lip stiff.

What can I say that could even mildly express the sheer awe I feel in the face of what I have seen?

The heavy burden on the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and their fortitude and guts to get back up and face it again?

The hard work and dedication of the people of BSS, who manage in the face of enormous odds to somehow help lift that burden?

I try to put over in words what I feel but know that glib words like "humbled" and "inspiring" can never be enough.

BANKS OF RIVER KAMLA: 13 August 13:30 local time (08:30 BST)

I am still trying to comprehend how much water has been flowing into these area of Bihar.

We are going to see villages next to the Kamla, a river that flows through the district of Maduhbani.

A widow whose home was destroyed in the floods in Bihar, northern India
The floods have particularly affected the most vulnerable in society

Some 45 minutes of pot-holes, muddy dips and robust use of the klaxon later, we park at the base of Kamla's embankment - a huge mound of earth well over 3.6m (12ft) high that runs the length of the river.

We walk for about a mile along the top of the embankment and pass some people living in temporary shelters made of bamboo poles and plastic sheeting.

There is a rickshaw parked outside of one and we offer greetings as we move along.

'Like a bomb'

Then we come across a huge gouge that had been taken out of the embankment and gingerly walk along a very narrow strip of footpath.

A little further along, there is a vast gap in the embankment where a massive amount of earth has been washed away. A shirtless man, walking with a large bamboo pole comes up to us to tell us what happened.

"It was like a bomb exploding. It could be heard for 3km," Rameswar Rai tells us.

Devotees of Shiva
Devotees of Shiva continue their pilgrimage despite the floods
He describes the moment the river burst through the embankment, gouging out the gap before us.

He lost his house and nearly all his possessions, including his bike but managed to save his family and his animals.

The water had reached up to his neck and it was amazing how anyone could have survived.

He says they were saved because it happened in the afternoon and his neighbours living near the embankment had seen water seeping though and had raised the alarm.

There was just enough time to get out safely. Of the 1,000 houses in the village between 700 and 800 were lost, along with the school and the temple.

His rice crop was lost and he cannot afford to buy rice seedlings to plant. He will have to wait until November before he can plant wheat but he will have to buy seed.

Borrowing money

It will not be until January that he will be able to harvest and make some money.

To make ends meet he has taken out a loan for 20,000 rupees (250; $490) from a money-lender at 3% interest. He earns between 18-20,000 rupees a year.

With such an enormous body of water no wonder these earth embankments give way

A local organisation SAHKI, funded by Oxfam, gave him plastic sheeting for shelter and also food. He was given 20kg of rice and 250 rupees (3; $6) from the government.

He is clear what the problem was: "These embankments don't help us. They only cause us trouble".

We then drive south, passing though what looked like some very poor villages, then we come across a huge expanse of water.

The floods here are still pretty extensive.

Examining the embankment and the vast gaps that had been ripped through them, it dawns on me how it all works: the embankments are maybe a mile apart and the river, when not in full flow, meanders within this mile-wide corridor.

When the river is in full flow there is upwards of 2.4m (8ft) of water one mile (1.6km) wide.

With such an enormous body of water no wonder these earth embankments give way. It is just like the levies breaking outside New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck.

PATNA, 12 August

A more civilised start this morning, 7.30am, but ominous.

The sky has opened and torrential rain has hit Patna, capital of Bihar state.

Gujarat floods
Many districts in Gujarat have been flooded

We're soon crossing the Ganges on a bridge that must be two miles long. The river is massive and extends well beyond its banks.

At the bridge's tollgate a young boy jumps, clings on to the driver's door and implores the driver to buy the sweets he's selling.

Suddenly his whole face sparkles and he's intently conversing with the driver. Then his hand starts to caress the air conditioning vent on the driver's side of the dashboard. He just couldn't believe air could be that cold.

We've got a six-hour journey ahead of us to some of the worst-hit areas of the flood plain. All along the road for the first three hours were lines upon lines of saffron-robed pilgrims.

All were barefoot and most were carrying poles, Dick Whittington style, that held containers of what I was told was water from the Ganges.

These were devotees of Lord Shiva, the destroyer. It seemed somewhat apt given where we were heading.

We were passing flooded areas but it was mainly paddy fields, lush and green with young rice crops freshly transplanted.

Relief material for flood victims in Bihar
The scale of disaster has dwarfed relief efforts in north India

The paddy depends on being flooded. At a T-junction we left the Shiva devotees and began to enter into the seriously flooded areas. On both sides of the road there was nothing but standing water to the horizon, although occasionally we would pass higher ground and fields would emerge.

Close to the road were many of the flood victims. They had made temporary shelters out of bamboo poles and lengths of plastic sheeting next to the road or right on it and had put down heavy bits of wood to warn the traffic where they were.

Few seemed to have any possessions except for their clothes and maybe a bed and their livestock. Women and children could be seen walking with sacks full of vegetation. Not food for the family but fodder for their livestock.

At our destination of Madhubani I quickly meet with an Oxfam colleague, Manish, who has to lead an assessment team arriving from Calcutta to decide what we can do in the areas we've just passed through.

The afternoon is getting on and Sawa Samiti, a local organisation Oxfam supports, takes us to the worst-hit area of this part of Bihar state. The village they want to take us to is about 45 minutes away on a potholed road. We can't get there by car so a mile or so outside the village we wade through knee high water - and probably a lot more.

The village had been hit badly. The villagers told us it had rained for 24-days solid. A widow of 83, Kairun Nisha, showed us her house, which had been completely destroyed.

She had survived because she managed to go to the flood shelter that housed many flood victims.

The shelter is a concrete building with both latrines and a water pump that can provide clean water even at the height of the flood. It also has a food store so that survivors have enough to eat in the first week of a flood. Kairun now stays with neighbours.

Looking for work

The villagers were lucky because they were given early warning of an impending flood thanks to the local Flood Preparedness Committee that Sawa Samiti helped organise.

Because of this and other measures such as the flood shelter no-one lost their life.

Relief being airdropped to flood affected people in Bihar, India
Food shortages persist despite regular airdrops

The waters have receded now, they have gone down by about a foot.

By night it is pitch black, no electricity here, and the villagers started telling us about their uncertain future.

A sizeable number of them are landless and depend on agricultural labour to feed their families.

The rice crop has been washed away and there will be no work in the fields for months.

The men will have to migrate for work, if they can find some, and leave the women and children behind. The water may have subsided in this village and they survived the floods but another set of problems for them is only just beginning.

PATNA : 11 August 2115 local time (1615 BST)

Early call at 0415. The taxi is here to take me to the airport. We drive through deserted Delhi streets compared with yesterday's full-on congestion. Traffic lights are ignored.

The flight to Patna, the capital of Bihar, takes an hour-and-a-half. Bihar is the state badly hit by the floods.

Street scene in Patna
Patna is very much bicycle rickshaw land
Low-lying cloud means I can't see the extent of the flood but capture a few fleeting glimpses of flooded fields as we begin our descent.

Bihar is known in India as an "Illness State", because of its terrible poverty: two-thirds of the state's population live on less than a dollar a day.

The Hindi word for sickness is bimaru, an acronym for four of India's poorest states, one of them Bihar.

At Patna's airport there is a massive map of Bihar showing the locations of the state's most spectacular destinations, mainly significant Buddhist shrines.

The outskirts of Patna are like a garden city - wide boulevards with bungalows, white walls and lots of trees. There are very few of the smart cars of Delhi and now it's bicycle rickshaw land.

I'm due to meet the person who will take me to the north of Bihar where the floods have caused the greatest damage, but things are running late. After capturing some of the sleep I've lost over the last two days I venture out into Patna.

Protection committees

It's midday, no mad dogs to be seen and the heat weighs down on my body like a heavy blanket. Despite the heat there is a great deal of activity - rickshaw drivers plying their trade, street vendors selling lunch, and an army of workmen mixing concrete and laying a pavement.

Flood affected villagers occupy railway tracks in Begusarai district, Bihar
Flood shelters helped prevent large loss of life
Eventually I meet up with Binod Kumar, the secretary of a local organisation called Sewa Samiti.

His organisation has been working closely with Oxfam since 1998 and is based in the worse flood-affected area of northern Bihar.

Yes, he'll take me there tomorrow. It will take us about seven hours just to get there as the roads are bad.

It's people like Binod who make a tangible difference to poor people's live and he wears his influence very lightly.

For many years he and his organisation have been helping some of Bihar's poorest and marginalised people. One of the initiatives they have introduced are village Flood Protection Committees. These are local people who take it upon themselves to let people know where to go in case of flood, warn the village when a flood is going to come and rescue people with boats.

During flood season, the committee members are in contact with government officials, listen out for 1930 radio agriculture news and weather forecasts and will contact relatives and contacts upstream in Nepal.

Lines of ants

These would all seem fairly standard. But Binod tells me that his organisation has been talking to some of the older people of the villages who always seem to know when a flood is coming.

They discovered that the older villagers looked closely at nature's signs. According to their observations a flood is coming if, during the monsoon season, the winds come from the west and are hot and humid - and also if the waters of the river become exceptionally muddy.

But the neatest one was about the ants. If ants start moving in long lines then there will be a flood. It all sounded fanciful but it seems to work.

In all the villages where Binod and his organisation works there were no deaths and people moved to higher ground in time.

DELHI : 10 August 1430 local time (0930 BST)

After an evening flight with only a brief snatch at some sleep, I am in the Delhi traffic on my way to the Oxfam office.

This is the India of stratospheric economic growth rates and three-lane highways, teeming with four lanes of traffic.

The roads pass by miles of huge concrete pillars holding up partly built multi-lane flyovers: this is modern, thrusting, vibrant, India.

A scene from a street in Delhi during the monsoon rains (file image)
Nature may have brought the rains but inequality is at the heart of the flood's impact

I am told there are lots of Indians. I am here to see one of them - the India with millions of people displaced by the recent floods.

I will have to catch a plane really early tomorrow morning to reach the areas where the floods have been worst.

The floods came unseasonably at the beginning of the monsoon and there is more than a month of the season still to come.

There is a joke going round Delhi that the most important weather forecast at the moment is not that about the monsoon but about the test cricket match between England and India at Lord's cricket ground in London.

This kind of black humour captures a part of India's disparities.

Anxiety

Nature may have brought the rains but inequality is at the heart of the flood's impact.

The flood victims were predominately the rural poor and the marginalised.

At the Oxfam office there is a sense of anxiety. After the pleasantries, the question comes from those in charge of the flood programme: "How well is the appeal going?"

On the day I left the UK we had just launched a public appeal for our work in the flooded areas.

I splutter out hardly reassuring phrases like "It's a bit too early to tell" and "there was one big donation I know of".

There is massive need and more we can be doing, but can we raise enough cash to do it?

I am starting to feel a bit uneasy. What will happen if we do not get the support we need?

Unpredictable

My discomfort worsens when I am being briefed about the work we are doing - it is expanding, there is more to do.

We have just sent out two teams to areas where we were not working before.

Overnight, another 25,000 people have been identified as needing their water sources cleaned up and teams are out in the field.

I ask Ashvin Dayal, the head of Oxfam GB in South Asia, if he thinks this flooding is the worst ever.

He says, in some places, yes, but in others, no. What worries him most is the unpredictability of it all.

He cannot recall floods coming at this time of year and neither has he witnessed floods across such a wide area, hitting more than one river basin.

"I fear this is going to continue, this unpredictability," he says.




SEE ALSO
Surviving on snails and rats in Bihar
09 Aug 07 |  South Asia
In pictures: S Asia flood relief
07 Aug 07 |  In Pictures
South Asia flood death toll rises
07 Aug 07 |  South Asia
What is the South Asia monsoon?
03 Aug 07 |  South Asia
South Asia considers flood lessons
03 Aug 07 |  South Asia
S Asia floods: Worst-hit areas
03 Aug 07 |  South Asia

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