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With floods and COVID-19, Assam faces a dual threat


Highlights:
- Assam has been struck by the season’s first flood, triggered by cyclone Amphan, affecting nearly three lakh people in nine districts.
- The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has added to the challenge, particularly in the flood relief camps.
- The state disaster management authority has drawn up standard operating protocol to deal with the risk of the virus from spreading in the flood relief camps.
- As the state stands on the brink of monsoons, people fear the double onslaught of more severe floods and COVID-19, as the number of positive cases show an upward swing with eased travel restrictions and more people returning home from outside.

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Nearly three lakh people in nine districts of Assam have been affected by the season’s ‘first flood’, triggered by cyclone Amphan, wreaking havoc in the state.

A phenomenon that ravages different parts of Assam every year like clockwork — displacing people, destroying crops and damaging homes — floods are not unusual in this part of the country, particularly during monsoons.

This time, however, it is not just the threat of rising waters that is facing the people of the state. Immediate damage aside — of agricultural fields inundated, roads and bridges broken, cutting off communication — the looming threat of COVID-19 in the flood relief camps set up by the administration, threatens to push the already-vulnerable to higher risk.

In the Majuli river island, for example, people are nervous about the prospect of shifting to a relief camp. Majuli is one of the most flood-prone areas in the state and has, over the years, borne the brunt of such repeated episodes that have led to chunks of landmass being washed away by the mighty Brahmaputra.

Tilok Chamuah of Salmara village, now inaccessible because boat services have been stopped due to the flood, said that while his village has been saved this time, 50 villages on the other side of the embankment have not been as fortunate. “They went underwater,” he said, adding “fields were inundated, boat services were stopped. But thankfully, the rains have stopped and no one around here has had to shift to a relief camp yet.”

Chamuah is familiar with living in a flood relief camp, and, depending on the severity of the condition, has spent 10 days to more than a month in some of them. “I particularly remember the time in 1992, 1998, and 2002, when we had very bad episodes of floods,” Chamuah told Mongabay India.

“But this time, I cannot predict what will happen if the need arises for us to move to a (relief) camp. The ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) and other health workers have been telling us to wash our hands frequently and maintain two-metre distance to avoid the infection (COVID-19). I don’t know if that will be possible in the camps—I know the scenario, I have lived it.”

MS Manivannan, Chief Executive Officer of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), however, assured that they are well-prepared to take on this dual challenge. “We have developed an SOP (standard operating procedure) for relief camps which has been distributed to every district so as to deal with the Covid-19 situation,” Manivannan told Mongabay India.

“As part of this, every district has identified where the camps can be set up and how many people will there be in every camp. This time, the space is three times than it usually is,” he said.

As on June, 2, 1,55,850 people are affected across 219 villages in three districts. As many as 40 relief camps are operational with 6122 people sheltering in them, according to the ASDMA.

The economic implication of floods in Assam — which has, over the years, become more savage and come in two, even three waves—is huge. Climate change has played a major role in this, said the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2015-20), leading to large-scale economic impact of different sectors — agriculture being the most vulnerable. In 2017, the state bore a loss of Rs 2,939 crores as a result of floods — this, apart from the loss of human and animal lives. This year, in these floods alone, 21,572 hectares of crop area have been affected, said the ASDMA.

After an initial low count of COVID-19 cases as compared to the rest of the country, Assam has been registering a spike in the numbers ever since travel has been eased and residents from other places have been coming back home in large numbers. The number of positive cases — mostly detected among those in quarantine and with a travel history— has crossed 1500 as on June 3.

Manivannan however said that all safety measures — including the one doubted by many, of maintaining physical distancing to avoid spread of the virus—is taken care of in the relief camps. “In one of my visits to a camp in Goalpara — one of the worst-affected districts — I have seen one or two families occupying a single (class) room,” he said. A school had been turned into a relief camp in this case.

In Dibrugarh, another flood-affected district, the deputy commissioner, Pallav Jha further said that in compliance with the SOP, masks are provided to every person in the relief camp, which they are required to wear at all times. “Hand-washing facility with soap is also mandatory in the camp. There is a medical team from the primary health centre to monitor everyone’s health,” Jha told Mongabay India.

Suspected cases of COVID-19 are to be sent to the quarantine centre, according to the guidelines, and Manivannan said that it has been advised to preferably send such a person to a centre closest to the relief camp. “We have further asked that the NDRF (National Disaster Relief Force) and SDRF (State Disaster Relief Force) be provided PPE kits while rescuing people,” he said.

Shyamjit Pashi of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), however, said that the awareness level among those in the rural areas is still not high enough to motivate compliance with the set guidelines to avoid COVID-19 in general—much less in the relief camps.

“In Morigaon, for example, people are still grasping the concept of physical distancing. In the weekly market a few days back, there was still a crowd of people. Now that people are coming back home from other states in large numbers, this lack of awareness is a dangerous thing,” Pashi, who is part of C-NES’ Boat Clinics initiative, said.

Mofida Begum, an ASHA who was on duty in a river island called Suber Char in the Morigaon district, expressed similar fears. “We are doing our best to tell people of all the precautions to avoid the infection. But this is just the beginning of the flood season — June, July, August, when the monsoons come and there is the possibility of a major flood, the relief camps will swell with people. Whether these precautions are maintained then, is what I am worried about,” Begum said.

The best bet, said some, is to reduce the risk of villages being inundated by building stronger embankments. “If a village is not flooded, there will be no need to go to the relief camp,” Abdul Rahim of Jorhat said simply.

These floods have, however, damaged at least eight embankments in different places, even as repair work on previously damaged embankments are still underway by government authorities. The chief minister of the state, Sarbananda Sonowal had, on April 30, directed the water resources department to complete all repair work on weak and breached embankments before the onset of monsoons and seasonal floods.

For the people on the ground, however, it is an unsure future. “Eku kobo nuwari (one cannot predict anything in Assamese),” Tilok Chamua of the Majuli island kept repeating. “When the waters threaten to take away your life, swallow your land, your animals, the focus is to just survive. Now there will be two things threatening us—eku kobo nuwari.”

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it…