Sunday, September 21, 2008

Flood snapshots

Here are some reflections from two days of my trip to Saptari District:

Day 1:

Today Pawan and I travel to Rajbiraj, the headquarters of Saptari District and the hub for the coordination of relief for around 25,000 people displaced from the recent floods.

The presence of the UN, government officials and aid workers is immediately evident in this otherwise sleepy place.

Driving into town, I see two white UN Land Rovers bump down the main street, their drivers swerving to avoid rickshaws, cows, potholes and children. I see five or six smaller but equally new cars advertising various organizations РConcern, M̩decins Sans Fronti̩res, Caritas. Men and women in khaki pants walk rapidly through the streets, fidgeting with cell phones.

“Shall we get tea?” Pawan suggests when we arrive. I agree – after two hours in a hot car, I’m hitting my afternoon slump.

But every teashop gives us the same response: “Chiya chaina.” Pawan shakes his head, says he’s never heard of a Nepali town running out of tea. (Tea to Nepalis is like cheese to the French.)

Before evening, we ask five different hotels before we find one that has room. My room smells of urine and mold; the communal toilet is clogged; the fan does not work.

Just last week, Rajbiraj was a remote city of 30,000. Rickshaws, a handful of rusty cars, and the occasional bus crammed with people, goats, chickens, were the only vehicles on the town’s dusty, rutted main street. The Star Hotel, the largest in town, had not filled its 25 rooms in over a year.

Now the town swells with aid workers and government officials. Men with walkie-talkies stride past half naked kids running after rolling tires; UN vehicles drive past men with bike baskets full of mangos; women sit on curbs with blankets of spices laid in front of them, gossiping: “did you hear, the shops have run out of tea?”

* * *

Disaster coverage, rightly, focuses on the victims. The people forced to flee their water-logged homes, those caught in the cross-fire, now living out of tarps.

Today I saw the other side – the people who benefit from the swell in relief after an emergency. For the managers of the Star Hotel, the tea suppliers and the rickshaw drivers of Rajbiraj, business has never been so good.

Day 2:

“We’re going to the breaking point,” Rajan of OCHA tells me as he gets up from his desk.

My eyes must light up because he follows it with, “Would you like to come?”

OCHA is the UN body charged with coordinating humanitarian relief. Rajan, a round man with a small mustache and a large smile, is leading OCHA’s mission in Saptari.

Five minutes later, Rajan, his colleague and I are headed for the site where the now infamous Koshi embankment broke less than three weeks ago.

It should take us 2 ½ hours to drive from Rajbiraj to the breakage point, Rajan says. The last hour of the trip we will drive along a narrow road that sits atop the remaining embankment.

After half hour, I start to see clusters of blue tarps packed, sardine-tight close to each other outside of my window. SUV-sized, the tarps are dome shaped and held by bamboo sticks. They sit together between rows of bright green rice paddy fields.

Tarps and Paddies

Underneath the tarps I see glimpses of interrupted lives. (Most are open with no door.) Some house bikes, a few sacks, a bed and cooking utensils. Most though, house just a bed and a few blankets.

I also see people. Under most tarps are bodies splayed out on blankets, sleeping. I see a naked boy crying outside of a tarp. He holds an empty metal bowl. I also see women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads – their eyes sunken, clothes stained.

When we reach the embankment, Rajan explains to me that two weeks ago the embankment separated the river on the left from villages on the right. Now it is flip-flopped – the Koshi’s dry riverbed and clusters of displaced people are on the left and flooded villages on the right.

As we drive north along the embankment, the water on our right flows faster. Milk chocolate colored, it carries pieces of wood and bits of tattered plastic faster than I could run. Crooked outlines of straw roofs peak from the surface, as do tips of trees and a line of the raised East/West Highway. All else is under water, buried.

Some pictures from the drive

We reach the breaking point and the driver turns off the engine. There are roughly two dozen people in the area – some with construction hats and boots, others in khakis and button up shirts.

Outside of the car is surprisingly quiet. I mostly hear water flow, gurgle and clanks of a bulldozer. I hear peoples’ voices too, but they are hushed, soft.

Rajan and his colleague take GPS measurements, I wander towards the tip of the break, past groups of men speaking Hindi and bags of concrete that an Indian work crew has put as a temporary measure.

I squint to see the other end of the breakage point across the gap – it must be a kilometer away. Muddy water flows through the gap. If I fall in I would not be able to swim against the current.

Above: Rajan and I standing where the wall broke. You can see the other tip of the broken wall at the top of the picture. The water to the right is flowing towards the flooded villages. Below: Another picture at the breaking point. A group of Indian men ask me to join their picture - eager for a token female, it seems. I was the only one in sight.

Most of the people with button up shirts are taking photos. I take out my camera too, I feel compelled to document this moment.

We get back in the car and drive home as the sun goes down. We pass the thousands of tarps again – against the darkening sky, dark figures scurry with buckets of carry water and bundles of firewood to get back to their tarps before dark.

The drive back is mostly silent – we each look out the window, watching the figures, reflecting.

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