They thought the monsoons were calm. Then came the deadly floods

A rescue boat carried people from a flooded village in Motihari, in the Indian state of Bihar, last month. Credit Cathal Mcnaughton/Reuters

Suhasini Raj and Jeffrey Gettleman

THE NEW YORK TIMES | September 7, 2017

MURMALA, India — As the floodwaters sloshed into her hut, Phoolvati, a poor and landless woman living in a farming village in Bihar State, scrambled to grab some jewelry, a soccer ball and a wad of rupees — the last of the family’s meager treasure. She hurriedly stuffed it all into a big aluminum box.

Men from the village were rowing a small boat as fast as they could, to get people out before they drowned.

“Take this,” she told her 10-year-old daughter, Bahomani. There wasn’t enough room in the boat for everyone. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Phoolvati watched as her daughter climbed in, clutching the box. The boat pushed off, nearly disappearing behind a wall of rain.

Villagers walking through flood waters in Kishanganj in Bihar State. Credit Diptendu Dutta/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Northern India, one of the country’s poorest regions, has been ravaged by some of the worst monsoon storms in recent years. Local officials pointed to a highway overpass about 15 feet above the ground and said that for the first time in living memory the water had risen above the bridge.

In a particularly severe season of storms and flooding around the world, the devastation in South Asia has been among the worst anywhere. The rains aren’t over yet, and already in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, more than 1,200 people have lost their lives.

Sadly, this happens every year. Deadly flooding is part of the landscape in South Asia, and over the past two decades an average of around 2,000 people have died each year, according to the International Disaster Database in Belgium.

But even by South Asian standards, what began as a slow storm season is entering a particularly intense second half. And despite all of India’s economic growth and the rapid infusion of mobile phones, computers, social media and other technology, millions of people in both rural and urban areas had no idea that dangerous weather was coming. Even some government officials said they had been given no warning.

A washed away section of a bridge at Palsa village in Bihar State. Credit Diptendu Dutta/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Walking through a string of villages in Bihar, the state that was worst hit this past month, the reek of fermenting grain cuts through the moist air. Sacks of rice from government warehouses had been left outside during the storms. Now inedible, the rice is full of dead worms.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced people now need that food. Across this area, more than 20,000 homes have been destroyed.

Here in the village of Murmala, in a fertile farming area about an hour and half’s drive from the nearest town, hundreds of displaced people are marooned in a closed-down, lightless middle school, getting chewed up by malarial mosquitoes.

Many have no land of their own and eke out livings by working on other people’s rice paddies. When the paddies are under several feet of water, there is no work.

For Abdul Rauf, a father of six, life has never been worse.

“We did not buy any new clothes this Eid, and this has never happened before,” he said, referring to the Muslim holiday last week. “We go to sleep hungry, unable to even fill our stomachs with water because the hand pumps are churning out such dirty water.”

The Bihar State administration compensates families around $6,200 for each member killed in the floods. But for countless people the checks have not come or, in many instances, the names have been wrong.

Every year in South Asia, from June to September, the monsoon rains thunder down. July is often the worst month, but this year it wasn’t so bad.

Phoolvati, a gaunt woman with dark hair who estimates that she is around 50, remembers scanning the rich green rice paddies that surround her village in mid-August and smiling at her husband.

There is a lot of work out there, she told him. Soon we will have enough money to buy our daughter a bicycle. They believed the worst of the monsoon had passed.

The rainfall had been so light, actually, that government officials said they were even thinking of starting irrigation pumps.

But on Aug. 11, that changed. Dark clouds formed over the fields and it began to rain hard. For three days straight, it poured. This area lies just south of the India-Nepal border, and water coursing through Himalayan rivers had nowhere to go. Nepal opened a huge dam upriver, sending a torrent downstream.

“We were taken completely by surprise,” said Pankaj Dixit, a district magistrate, the government official who runs the local administration. “We had no information whatsoever from any agency about the rising water levels.”

Families rescued from flooded homes in Bihar last month. Credit Cathal Mcnaughton/Reuters

Afsari, a mother of four, rushed out of her hut with her children to look for help. All of them were knocked down by the current. She tried to hold the hand of her youngest child, who was 2. Her grip slipped and her son was washed away.

Her neighbor Mohammad Nayyar Alam is still furious, saying that the one government boat that finally showed up was “useless.” The boat had space for seven people, he said, but five of the seats were taken by government officials.

“How can it help the 400 families struggling to keep their heads above water then?” he asked.

Afsari spoke in near whispers outside her mildewed hut. She said she planned to use the $6,200 from her son’s death to educate her three surviving children.

“I want them to get out of this village,” she said, an empty look in her eyes.

Weather models predict that over the next 30 years India will experience more extreme rainfall.

Asit K. Biswas, an environmental scientist and co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, said that India desperately needed better drainage systems. And he criticized politicians who complain about climate change without doing anything to help.

“It then becomes an ‘act of God,’ and thus they are not responsible,” he said. “Sadly, South Asia’s water and flood problems are man-made, due to poor planning and management.”

Murmala and the villages around here would usually be buzzing with activity at this time, with people out working the paddies and fields, and children taking the dirt roads to and from school.

These villages are now concentrations of idleness, frustration, suffering and grief.

One older man limped around with a huge leaking boil on the inside of his thigh. He said he had been wading through waist-deep floodwater, filthy with garbage, for three days in an attempt to find his son. Eventually, he found him: The boy’s body had washed up a couple of kilometers away.

Phoolvati is still haunted by the image of her daughter, Bahomani, clutching the aluminum box with the family’s valuables as the rickety rescue boat pushed away from her house. Phoolvati’s husband was also in the boat.

As she watched, the wind whipped up, creating white caps on the water. The boat tipped over.

“I shouted. I was paralyzed,” she remembered.

The water closed over her daughter and husband. Two days later, in a rice paddy, their bodies were found, intertwined. Bahomani was clinging to her father’s neck.

Suhasini Raj reported from Murmala, and Jeffrey Gettleman from New Delhi. Ayesha Venkataraman contributed reporting from Mumbai.

This article was published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 7, 2017.