Day 34: Floods in Bihar

“If a ship gets damaged, it is not enough to summon all hands to pump water out of the hold. It is absolutely necessary to plug the gap through which the water is rushing.” — Matthieu Ricard

My friend Shweta sent me this quote this morning.

It feels apt; Northeastern Bihar is in the midst of flooding. And while I want to and it’s important to pump out the water right now, I also want to understand the gap that causes the rushing water. And figure out how to plug it up.

Upon hearing news of the floods, we discussed what we should do as a team. I felt skeptical — what are we really going to do? We’re probably going to create new problems. Why do we always have to try and play superhero?

We began directly discussing solutions — ”we can go distribute food. And water. And clothes.” But I raised a few objections, probably out of skepticism and doubt — “what if we go and have enough food for 10 people but there are 100 people? It might breed more issues.”

So we decided to at least go and see, and then figure out what to do.

So how to go? Flooded roads. Broken bridges. Walking is the only option. Ten kilometers total. Through the monsoon rains.

On the walk, you’re primed to look for destruction. You assume everything will be in ruins. So you see havoc everywhere you look, even before you reach the ruins.

Even though the first few kilometers were filled with those who found opportunity amongst the floods. Like those who set up mosquito nets to catch the fish overflowing from the river.

But beyond the fish, there was real suffering and hardship. A village washed away by the rain, except for a small strip, where 100 or so people were stuck.

The young escaped by either swimming or but paddling away on floating banana tree trunks. But everyone else was stuck. Another 150 people — constantly changing, streaming in and out like the river — come to watch. Like entertainment.

We ask how we might help. The standard answer: “you can’t do anything. Only the government can, but they won’t come for days.”

I keep imagining different scenarios. Can I swim over there and talk to the people? Am I strong enough to swim while supporting a small child of two? Can we create more of the banana floats? Are there any boats?

Eventually we decide. A boat is the answer. But where? None here, we’re told. In any nearby villages? One old uncle with a long beard says, “in Falsa village.” And another man gives a phone number. No answer. Really sounds like it might be False-a.

Forget phones. We take an auto there We see a boat. But no driver. He comes from the other side of the river and won’t return until the evening.

But one boat has gone out already. To a different nearby flooded village with ten others. We get his number and inform him of the 100 trapped people in the village we mentioned. He thanks us and heads to that village.

Human life lost. Houses ruined. Things ruined. Livestock killed. Kilometers and kilometers of crops submerged. Days go by without any work. The mental stress mounts with the uncertainty of survival.

2008 was a particularly devastating year. 500-plus killed; close to 3 million people displaced.

But it wasn’t just 2008. Every year. Same story. For the last four years that I’ve been here. And for many, many years before that.

Why? Is it a manmade or natural disaster?

Manmade. Inexperienced engineers. Faulty infrastructure. Misguided policies. Lack of communication between teams in India and Nepal. Politicians and bureaucrats looking to pocket the windfall of the disaster.

The 2008 flood happened when a barrage in Nepal broke. And it broke when filled with just 1/7th its supposed full capacity.

Following 2008, reports followed. This year, too, there will be reports. Which gather dust until next year’s report team needs to reference them for next year’s report. And millions more people lose their homes, belongingings, and maybe even their lives.

What can we do? How can we plug the hole? How can we organize and raise our voices? How can we stop the madness?

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