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In the news: India’s northeast faces ‘twin disasters’

‘People just can’t afford to tackle the floods amid this pandemic.’

Villagers row a makeshift raft through a flooded field in Assam, India Anuwar Hazarika/REUTERS
Villagers row a makeshift raft through a flooded field in the northeastern state of Assam, India, on 29 June.

Severe flooding in the northeast Indian state of Assam has submerged cropland and villages, pushing at least 27,000 people into relief camps.

Days of heavy rainfall over the past week caused riverbanks to burst. State authorities say the floods have affected at least 1.3 million people in 25 of Assam’s 33 districts, with more rain predicted in the coming days.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the disaster’s impacts on a population that was already struggling with lost jobs and livelihoods amid COVID-19 lockdowns.

Tirtha Prasad Saikia, joint director for the North-East Affected Area Development Society, or NEADS, a local NGO responding to the disaster, said people in relief camps need food and hygiene support. Safety for evacuated women and girls is also a top concern.

“There are no social distancing norms; no other protocols in the relief camps,” he said. “This is really creating another disaster in the community.”

Floods are common in Assam and other parts of South Asia during the ongoing monsoon season, which usually lasts through October. But this year, the pandemic has escalated risks on multiple fronts. 

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Lockdowns prevented the government from completing pre-monsoon repairs on river embankments, Saikia said, while frontline local NGOs have struggled to secure response funding. 

At the same time, communities now hit by floods have already faced months of lost income due to the coronavirus. Planting season was just underway, but the damage to agriculture has wiped out crops and will make it harder for people to recover, Saikia warned.

Assam has already seen two waves of flooding, but the monsoon season will likely last at least another three months.

“Assam is battling twin disasters of floods and coronavirus,” he said. “People just can’t afford to tackle the floods amid this pandemic.”

- Irwin Loy

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