Runa Devi is a young woman trying to rebuild her life. In August 2007 a wave swept though her village. The badly maintained embankment built in the 1950s ruptured, releasing a tide of flood water which engulfed the entire area.
“My husband and I run a small stall. When the water started flowing in, our first reflex was to save the stall and we both clung to it trying to save our goods. It’s all we have. Unfortunately, everything was ruined by the water”.
Runa Devi, 33, is married and has three sons, aged from 6 to 10 years old. She comes from a small, isolated Dahlit village called Kathara, where damage from the 2007 monsoon floods was extensive. Most of the small mud and thatched houses were destroyed. The fields were left covered by sandy soil, making it almost impossible to grow the usual crop in years to come.
The European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) responded to this exceptional flooding as early as August 2007 with a € 9.5 million funding decision (covering India, Nepal and Bangladesh). From this amount, € 5 million were allocated to 11 partners in India, mainly Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and United Nations Agencies (UN).
Bihar is one of the 4 states in India to which European Commission emergency aid was allocated after the 2007 floods. With its population of 87 million and high poverty levels, the families living in low-lying areas were the most severely affected. These people are also the poorest of the poor, making the impact of such a catastrophe even more dramatic.
According to latest National Disaster Management Agency figures, at least 24.5 million people have been affected by the floods this year in 22 districts of Bihar.
Runa Devi’s village was submerged for several weeks. During that time, villagers lived in temporary shelters on what was left of the narrow embankment until the waters finally receded. Life was tough and people would not have survived had it not been for emergency aid reaching them by boat. Twin boys were born on the embankment in September. Villagers tell the tale of the worried father who swam to get a nurse to care for the mother-to-be. Delivery was successful, but these babies will have many more hardships to face in the future.
The houses are now being rebuilt from the ground up with the assistance of ECHO partner, Oxfam UK. “What we need now are seeds and tools, but with the sand deposits we are concerned that the crop will not grow” confides Runa Devi. For this reason, ECHO’s partners are planning to distribute more suitable crop varieties which grow successfully in sandy soil. This will enable the communities to get back on their feet and not be obliged to rely solely on food aid distribution, or worse, money lenders.
Early warning systems and disaster preparedness measures have been put in place over the past few years. Warnings to evacuate appear to have been relayed effectively to the each household. It was said that most people were very reluctant to leave their homes, as the little they own, understandably, is more precious to them. Nonetheless, Runa Devi’s village only reported one casualty.
In order to assist the Bihar populations and those in three other Indian States hit by the floods, the European Commission is planning a follow-up humanitarian funding. These funds will go towards rehabilitation efforts as well as disaster preparedness measures –“building back better”- so that this tragedy does not repeat itself next year.
When asked how she saw the future, Runa Devi replied: “I hope that my three sons learn how to read and write so that they will have a chance of a better life”.
Regional Information Officer, South Asia