Spotlight: South Asian countries struggle to mitigate impacts of devastating floods, surging COVID-19 cases
Massive floods and landslides triggered by weeks of rains have affected millions in South Asia as regional countries struggle to curb the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak and restart economies.
Bangladesh, India and Nepal suffer from monsoon flooding from June to September every year, but this year is different as it comes at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"People in Bangladesh, India and Nepal are sandwiched in a triple disaster of flooding, the coronavirus and an associated socioeconomic crisis of loss of livelihoods and jobs," Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Jagan Chapagain said.
WORST FLOODS IN DECADE
As a land of rivers, Bangladesh is vulnerable to flooding. Almost half of the country are currently in the grip of floods with more than 119 casualties reported and hundreds of thousands of families displaced as of latest.
Nearly 5 million people have been affected in 31 out of the country's total 64 districts, including over 1 million who remain isolated and surrounded by floodwaters, according to the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.
"This is going to be the worst flood in a decade," Bangladesh's Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre chief Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan said.
Officials said the onrush of water from hills across the Indian borders has virtually worsened the situation. Floods reportedly caused widespread damage to habitation, crops, roads and highways across vast swathes of the country.
In India's northeastern state of Assam, floods have killed 102 people and badly affected over 5.6 million as of Tuesday, and there has been no let-up in the situation.
"There has been no improvement in the weather situation which precisely is the reason waters are not receding fully. Some times it recedes at certain places but again the situation turns grim as rains are continuing," said Mandira, project manager at the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA).
According to the ASDMA, the flood water has so far inundated 5,304 villages, damaging the cropland of over 259,899.44 hectares in the past 37 days.
All major rivers are flowing above the danger mark. The surging water has eroded roads, embankments, culverts, bridges and at places triggered land erosions.
Meanwhile, more than 95 percent of the Kaziranga national park, a world heritage site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Orghanization (UNESCO) world heritage site, remains submerged in floodwaters. Wildlife officials said at least 123 wild animals have died in floods and 150 others rescued.
Floods have also wreaked havoc in the eastern state of Bihar where over 2.4 million people were affected and 32 were killed.
The ongoing floods have hit 765 panchayats (villages) and spread over 93 blocks of 11 districts, and seven rivers were flowing above the danger mark at 24 spots in 15 districts of Bihar, according to the Bihar Disaster Management Department (BDMD).
The neighboring country Nepal also bore the brunt of floods, with 110 people killed and 50 still missing in the rising waters and mudslides, while more than a million people displaced.
SPIKES IN COVID-19 CASES
As floods ravaged swathes of South Asian countries in recent weeks, mounting cases of COVID-19 have also put these countries on high alert.
Bangladeshi senior health ministry official Nasima Sultana said in a briefing on Wednesday that 3,009 new cases and 35 more deaths were reported, bringing the death toll to 3,035 and total cases to 232,194.
India has been witnessing a sharp increase of daily cases in recent weeks, raising fears of an extended crisis. It has now become the world's third-worst affected nation in terms of infections after the United States and Brazil.
With 768 news deaths and 48,513 positive cases reported Wednesday, the country's total tally has crossed the 1.5 million-mark, reaching 1,531,669, according to the federal health ministry. The death toll has reached 34,193.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy said "It is going to be a tough few months ahead, but there is effectively no brake on the virus, and I don't expect a decline for quite some time."
Meanwhile, the Nepali government on Wednesday reported 210 new infections, bringing the total tally to 19,273 with the death toll at 49.
The governments have launched rescue operations and imposed new restrictions, as they strive to revive the economies heavily battered by the pandemic for the past six months.
Because of the serious water-logging problem, activities in Bangladesh's business district of Motijheel have been severely affected, with many office-goers, traders and workers falling behind their daily schedules.
As always rickshaws emerged as a means of relief in many water-logged Dhaka areas. The main city areas appeared less crowded as people also preferred to stay indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bangladeshi State Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Md Enamur Rahman said they had rushed teams of disaster response forces to carry out the rescue, distribute relief materials and supervise centers where the flood-affected families have taken shelter.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has asked officials to remain alert to tackle floods which have come as a further blow at a time when the country is feeling the severe pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also, to quell the spread of the virus, the government has extended its restriction measures on public activities and movements in capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country until Aug. 3.
In India, the Assam state government has set up relief centres in almost all the inundated districts to provide shelter to the affected population.
"In the flood-hit areas, there are around 384 joint teams from state and national disaster response teams carrying out rescue and relief efforts. So far 81,012 people were evacuated and presently 615 relief camps have been set up for the affected people," Mandira said.
In Bihar state, three helicopters of Indian airforce were been deployed in flood-affected areas of Gopalganj, Darbhanga and East Champaran to drop dry foodstuff items to the affected people, and officials said relief distribution through boats and other means would continue in the submerged areas.
Authorities have set up 29 relief camps and 703 makeshift community kitchens to provide shelter and food to the affected people.
Twenty-five teams of national disaster response force (NDRF) and state disaster response force (SDRF) have been deployed in the flood-hit areas to carry out rescue efforts.
In the meantime, to curb the spread of the virus, the Indian government has decided to extend the existing restrictions on limited domestic flight operations and caps on airfares till Nov. 24, and local government in India's eastern state of West Bengal Tuesday announced an extension in partial lockdown until Aug. 31.
For Nepal, the World Bank warned in a report that its nearly one third population who are just above the poverty line now face the risk of falling below the line due to the loss of their livelihood.
To gradually restart the economy, the Nepali government had first decided to relax lockdown for 44 sectors in early May, opened most of the sectors for operation in early June and finally decided to end the lockdown fully on July 20 with a few restrictions remaining.
Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has ordered the authorities to intensify the rescue and relief operations following flash floods and landslides, a key aide to the prime minister told Xinhua.
The World Bank report also said that Nepal's economic outlook is uncertain.
Former Nepali Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat told Xinhua recently that improvements in some of the economic indicators are largely guided by circumstances instead of policy made by the Nepali government.