Driving across the Kosi Barrage it finally hits you: the mighty river has been reduced to a trickle. Most of the Kosi now flows through densely populated villages in Nepal and India along a course that the river abandoned in 1867.
The Kosi's western embankment here in Saptari has become one long refugee camp stretching up to 14km. Those fleeing the floods in neighbouring Bihar have also settled along old banks of the Kosi.
They have come with their livestock and belongings and have set up tents along the highways where relief supplies are most plentiful. One Indian family say they walked six days to get here because everything was flooded, relief camps were crowded and they wanted their three daughters to be safe.
Every day, more people come from Sunsari and Bihar: in tractors, rickshaws and bullock carts piled high with women and children. Once the family is safe, the menfolk wade back to their villages to try to salvage what is left and guard their houses. Most have put up anything they can find: tarp, plastic sheets, bamboo, reeds for shelter. The stench of human waste is pervasive, disease is rife and children are especially vulnerable. Drinking water is scarce. For most, there is just the muddy water of what is left of the Kosi. Everywhere, there is the destitution, confusion and misery of people who have lost everything.
From one camp to the next, what is most apparent is the vast number of children everywhere. Children ferrying water, children foraging for dry straw and twigs to cook, children tending livestock. There are newborns sleeping in the laps of their of emaciated mothers. Little Neha, barely a week old, is all oiled up and groomed by her mother, for whom the neighbours brought food. Even the goats have given birth and the kids scamper around their mother with human children.
Grandparents look after the children while able-bodied family members go to fetch relief supplies, fuel, shelter and food. Families sleep on the floor, lucky if they have a plastic sheet to lie down on at night.
The children are resilient, they find things to do: playing in carts, painting their nails with ballpoint pens, or making mud cakes. But
there are also sick children, many suffering from diarrhoeal dehydration.
Older children, especially the girls, babysit younger siblings, fetch water and do the household chores, and where men are not present, help their mothers set up shelters.
This boy from India, Jainul Masuli, was separated from his family when the Kosi changed course. He
was found alone in the buffalo shed, crying. A family has taken him in even though he is an extra mouth to feed.
One family was looking after children whose mother had been pushed off the boat after she was not able to pay to be rescued. Some marooned women in Bihar said they paid boatmen with their nose rings to be taken to dry land.
Many from India stay with their Nepali relatives at night and some flock to the relief camps in the day time to get aid. And as with everything else, aid is also getting politicised. Young
political activists threaten violence if relief materials are not distributed through their organisation, locals try to loot supplies. There is communal tension brewing.
Two weeks after the flood, there are still hundreds streaming in. Unlike neighbouring Sunsari, relief is not as organised here, but the need is even greater.
Thankfully, relief work in Saptari is gathering pace day by day, with better shelters and toilets. Handpumps have been installed, and the registration of the homeless is in full swing. But there is a long way to go.
These are the flood refugees who have found themselves in the back waters of the relief operations.
What the Kosi refugees need:
? Food and clean water
? Tents, shelter, latrines, bathing areas
? Dry blankets, clothes, mattresses, treated mosquito nets
? Medical attention
? Supplementary food for nursing mothers and babies
? Recreational and educational material for children
? Kitchen utensils and fuel wood
Who to send contributions to:
District Disaster Relief Committee (Saptari)
Business as usual - FROM ISSUE #416 (05 SEPT 2008 - 11 SEPT 2008)