NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) — At least 4.5 million people have been made homeless by heavy flooding in India, and much worse could be on its way, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Friday.
"We're talking about water levels that are as high already as the water levels two years ago in the serious floods of 1998, and those were the highest since 1938," said Geoffrey Dennis, head of the federation's South Asian delegation.
"So it's a very serious situation, and it's coming earlier this year," he told Reuters in an interview. "It could get a lot worse over the next two weeks, and that would just be disastrous."
Dennis said that in the northeastern state of Assam, which has suffered three waves of flooding as well as flash floods since the end of June, a huge river island has been engulfed by water, and its 100,000 inhabitants have been forced to flee.
"It's completely inundated with water, and all you can see are the tops of some of the trees and the tops of some of the hillocks and nothing else now," he said.
"They've gone onto the mainland now . . . and they've been put into schools and any buildings that are available, and a lot of them are under tarpaulin in the heavy rains at the moment."
The Geneva-based International Federation launched an appeal on Friday for $3.8 million to assist 200,000 of the most vulnerable victims of flooding in Assam and four other states, Bihar, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh.
The federation said there is a risk of diseases such as malaria, cholera and gastroenteritisin flooded areas. As yet there have been no reports of epidemics.
The subcontinent's annual monsoon arrived early in northeast India this year, bringing floods to Assam from late June.
The situation worsened dramatically this month when flash floods caused by heavy rains in the Himalayas swept south, breaching embankments along many parts of the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries and inundating surrounding areas.
Dennis said climactic change and deforestation were probably also causes of the disaster.
The International Federation said the combined death toll from the floods in the northeast of India alone had risen to over 300, and many more were still unaccounted for.
The worst of the flooding has occurred in Assam, where 10 percent of a state larger in size than the whole of Sri Lanka is under water and 3.1 million people are homeless or marooned.
The swollen river waters have continued downstream to Bangladesh, where one million people have been affected, and there has also been flooding in Bhutan and southeastern Nepal.
Dennis said that because many areas under water are inaccessible the full scale of the humanitarian and economic disaster has yet to emerge.
He said the key areas in which the International Federation will be helping are food, shelter and health and hygiene.
"It's massive. You're talking about four to five million people that have been affected, who have lost their immediate stores of food in their houses and most of them are agricultural people who have lost their crops."
"The rice harvest was due in September and almost all of that I would imagine will go."
Dennis said that, ironically, there are some parts of western India which are still suffering from a drought which gripped several states ahead of the monsoon.
"There are some parts of Rajasthan...that have still not received rain and the water table is lower than it has been for many, many years there," he said. "And you've actually got some places that haven't had any rain for three years."