On June 1, a 13-year-old in Assam’s Nagaon district drowned while chasing ducks in a flooded river near his house. A month later, on July 1, a six-year-old slipped and fell into the slushy waters of the Champabati river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, in Dhubri district while making her way home. Her sister tried to rescue her but it was too late. On July 24, a two-year-old toddler rolled over in his sleep and fell from his bed into the waters in his inundated house in Barpeta district.
The 13-year-old, six-year-old and two-year-old are among the 49 children (below the age of 18) who have died in the Assam floods this year, accounting for 44.5 per cent of the total deaths reported till August 3, according to data analysed by The Indian Express.
Since May 22, floods in Assam have affected more than 56 lakh people in 30 out of 33 districts of the state, claiming 110 lives, according to figures from Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA). Twenty six people — including at least nine children — have died in landslides caused by rain.
More than 2.6 lakh hectares of total crop area has been affected, 231 embankments, 200 bridges and 2,027 roads have been damaged in what experts have described as a particularly destructive flood this year.
Since August 1, with the rains letting up, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries have started showing a receding trend, though 7,000 people are still in relief camps, and nearly four lakh people in 19 districts remain affected.
“The figures are most concerning,” said M S Manivannan, ASDMA Chief Executive Officer. “More children have died this year, and we will be forming a special committee to look into the causes.” In the 2019 floods, 32 out of the 102 deaths in Assam were those of children.
Children more susceptible
District-wise flood reports say that most children deaths are related to accidental drowning in floodwaters. “Apart from playing, children also misjudge the strength of the current,” said Varnali Deka, DC Goalpara district, where eight out of twelve reported deaths are of children.
“We hold awareness campaigns and issue regular advisories in the pre-flood season. Parents are instructed to look after their children, and when water approaches the warning level, we issue a red alert,” she said.
Yet, district after district has recorded a similar pattern of events leading to children dying: “falling into water while playing” to “drowned while bathing in the river” to “fell from bed while sleeping” are among the common ones.
Nearly six per cent of Assam, a state comprising flood plains and surrounded by hills on all sides, is made up of islands (chars or saporis) created by the Brahmaputra. More than 30 lakh (accounting for ten per cent of the total population) reside in these islands, which are severely affected by the annual floods.
A disaster management official from Dhubri district, who did not wish to be named, said that on account of this being a riverine area, many communities grow up very close to the water. “So they are not scared. Despite us creating awareness, they come out to play, fish etc., ignoring the danger signs,” he said.
This year, children account for four of the five deaths reported in Dhubri district, five out of nine deaths in Nagaon district, 13 out of twenty one deaths in Barpeta district, and all three deaths in Dhemaji district.
According to Belgium-based Debarati Guha-Sapir, a professor of public health who has studied floods in India and specialises in human impact of disasters and conflicts, children are much more susceptible to floods because they are unable to run to safety or gauge the depth of waters. “Moreover, often many mothers have more than one child. In such cases, she is only able to protect her youngest kids (infants), and as a result, those who are aged five-seven, remain unprotected and more vulnerable,” said Guha, who is Director, Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster, Brussels.
Guha also said playing in floodwaters makes children more vulnerable to water-borne diseases like diarrhoea or acute respiratory disease because they end up swallowing the water, or their water containers are contaminated. “Both can cause death in 48 hours,” she said.
It is not necessary that disease-related deaths will be counted as flood deaths — which means that floods indirectly cause a higher number of deaths than the official toll.
“There are deaths related to electrocution caused by floodwaters, or snake bites, but they may not qualify as flood deaths. We take a call on case-to-case basis,” said a disaster management official on the condition of anonymity. He added that sometimes deaths may be recorded in relief camps after floods recede but are not usually counted as flood deaths. As per rules, families of deceased flood victims can get Rs 4,00,000 ex gratia payment.
ASDMA’s Manivannan said that it is at the local revenue circle level that the district administration decides whether a death will be considered as a flood death or not. “The flood-related deaths are decided by the field officials in the district based on the field report,” he said, adding that no children have died in relief camps this year.
Yet, the authorities say they have taken serious note of these distressing figures. Once the water recedes, Manivannan said that the administration will visit all areas where deaths have been reported, and activate village level committees to understand the causes of these deaths.
“We will be reviewing the cause of these deaths again so we can prevent them in the future, and figure out what security measures can be taken,” he said, adding that this year the authorities have established child-friendly spaces in all relief camps in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). These include learning spaces for children, separate spaces for lactating mothers to breastfeed, visits by ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activist) and Anganwadi workers etc.
“It is clear that children are a vulnerable group,” said an official from the Morigaon district administration, one of the worst-affected districts in the state. “The only way out is a long-term solution. Awareness campaigns will only work if they are done on a long-term basis emphasising on behaviour change and education on safety measures,” he said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines