A disaster on two fronts
Since the end of May, Assam has faced ever-worsening conditions of floods and landslides, a difficult situation as is but made even more difficult by the ongoing pandemic. As of July 12, the State has faced three waves of floods caused by heavy rainfall in the North-East. In total, 70 people have lost their lives in Assam, with 44 dying due to the actual deluge and another 26 dying as a result of landslides. The third wave, in fact, was far more destructive than the others and came at a time when the floodwaters appeared to be receding. Till last Saturday, more than six lakh people had been affected by the heavy rainfall and floods. Now, the ASDMA (Assam Disaster Management Authority) has reported that 12.97 lakh people have been affected by the situation, a significant escalation. The disaster authority has also reported that around 2,015 villages are now underwater throughout the State and 82,546.82 hectares of crop areas have been damaged during this crisis. The situation is unlikely to improve, in fact, it looks set to become even worse with the Brahmaputra flowing above its danger levels. Its tributaries are likewise over danger level and are already overflowing their embankments with bridges, roads and other nearby infrastructure being damaged in the process. The animals have not been spared in this chaos. 90 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park is now underwater. 41 animals have died, some due to drowning, others due to vehicles running them over in a panic. One of Assam's much valued greater one-horned rhinos has also died due to drowning. On a consolatory note, the park authorities did manage to rescue 49 other animals that were in immediate danger due to the floods. With containment efforts underway since May, ASDMA has managed to set up over 270 relief camps all over the State which are now sheltering and feeding over 20,000 people.
Naturally, the situation is not limited to Assam. Nearby Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have faced flash floods and landslides of their own during this period. It is relevant to note that the tributaries of the Brahmaputra do tend to flood every year and floods and such are not an uncommon occurrence in the region. But, it must be noted that unusual rainfall patterns have become more common in recent years. While certain North Eastern states receive a deficit of rainfall, others receive an absolute deluge, with cloud bursts creating dangerous situations in these areas. Climate change is clearly a culprit here. But a normally bad situation is made even worse during these times because these floods coincide with a pandemic that is ramping up its contagious spread every day in the country.
Complicated quarantine efforts in Assam have been made even more complicated now that floods have forced out people from their homes. A few have found shelter in disaster camps that have been set up but this by no means guarantees safety, at least from the virus. While ASDMA has made efforts to limit the number of people in each of the camps, there is no strict protocol for ensuring that an outbreak does not infect entire camps. Those at the camps have claimed that even using the bathrooms is an ordeal, social distancing is non-existent and the situation can only get worse. And it will. The number of camps and the number of people per camp will likely go up as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries flood surrounding areas. Warnings have been issued and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is involved in untiring efforts to rescue people. Admirable efforts aside, it is clear that the authorities responsible for disaster management, at the state level and Central, are not adequately equipped and prepared to tackle two disasters at once. While no outbreaks have been reported yet, the outlook is grim and the tragedy is far from over.