Twin crisis: Bihar prepares for floods amid Covid-19 pandemic

If the coronavirus pandemic alone was not enough of a crisis, Bihar is now staring at the possibility of impending floods as well. As Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Saturday reviewed the state government’s preparedness to simultaneously confront the twin challenges, he ordered top officers to begin setting up safe shelters for flood victims and ensure social distancing to be followed in those relief camps in view of the Covid-19 threat.

“As we are already alert to the threat of coronavirus pandemic, there is a pressing need to prepare for the possibility of floods as well. It is a huge challenge; but also an opportunity to rise to the occasion. We have to save people from floods and coronavirus at the same time,” the CM said during his five-hour-long review meeting.

Though most experts believe the flood threat may still be a few weeks away, Nitish Kumar’s proactive focus is on recognising that the degree of action needed to match the degree of the twin crisis.

Floods claimed the lives of more than 130 people in 2019 and adversely affected a population of one crore in 13 districts, which explains why CM Nitish Kumar has started activating his administrative set up much before the expected arrival of the crisis.

“The Chief Minister’s strategy is clear- while simultaneous efforts are to be made to help patients of Covid-19 and flood victims, a corresponding focus is also required to prevent one set of victims from mixing with the other,” a senior IAS officer said.

“While we need to continue with our isolation centres for Covid-19 patients, the threat of floods has now made it mandatory for us to set up safe shelters or disaster relief camps for the flood victims too,” the CM said, as he scanned through details about the pre-selected sites for the relief camps to be set up by the state disaster management department.

Bihar, a state naturally divided by the Ganges, is a land of two halves— the North Bihar Plains and the South Bihar Plains. While the Northern Bihar receives water from Himalayan Rivers and is largely flood prone, the south of Bihar benefits from the rivers of central India, but it is prone to drought.

As rivers like Ghaghara, Gandak, Baghmati, Kosi, Kamala, Mahananda, and others flow down from the Himalayas of Nepal and make their way to the Ganges in frequently changing channels, it leaves North Bihar Plain, located less than 250 feet (75 metres) above sea level, prone to flooding.

Incidentally, as a long term solution to the flood problems, Bihar has always been demanding a dam and reservoir in Nepal. However, in the backdrop of mounting tension between India and Nepal, it seems highly unlikely that the neighbouring country would make any efforts to save Bihar from its overflowing rivers.

Instead, Nitish Kumar has taken it upon his government to rise to the occasion. That government’s efforts, as mandated by the CM, would be focused on protecting people from the twin disasters— Covid-19 and floods— with a well thought out strategy.

The CM on Saturday instructed the State Health Department to make arrangements in advance for medical treatment of the people at the safe shelters. There should be a system of medical screening in relief camps, he said, adding that the disaster victims have first rights over government funds, which is why the Disaster Management Department must make preparations in advance for the amount of funds required.

As Principal Secretary, Disaster Management Department, Pratyaya Amrit made a detailed presentation about pre-flood preparations, the CM asked questions about the selection of safe shelter sites and told District Magistrates to ensure supply and medical services in those camps.

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