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Huge Toll From South Asia Floods Tied to Environmental Degradation

Effects of deforestation devastate India, Nepal, and Bangladesh

ACROSS South Asia, floods caused by torrential rains are drowning farmers and their cattle, tearing roofs from rafters, and sweeping virtually everything away.

The torrents that have killed nearly 3,000 people in three countries in South Asia in the last four weeks have been exacerbated by human development, particularly deforestation, some experts say.

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Punjab - India's breadbasket and one of its most prosperous states - has been especially hard hit. Nearly 2,600 villages in Punjab and the neighboring state of Haryana have been inundated, and crops worth millions of dollars have been damaged.

Indian Air Force helicopters are dropping food packets on marooned villages, and the Army has been called out to lead relief efforts. But even though life in northern India is limping back to normal, rivers in eastern India continue to run above flood stage. In the northeast, vital rail links have been breached, cutting some parts of the region off from the rest of the country.

As in the United States, vast tracts of agricultural land have been damaged, crops destroyed, and bridges washed out.

The irony is that, though South Asia is not unfamiliar with natural disasters, little has been done here in the way of disaster prevention.

In India, floods traditionally pose a serious problem in thickly populated states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam. According to official estimates, an average of 8.2 million acres of land are flooded annually. But a systematic approach to flood prevention is still missing. As Terry Jeggle, director of the Bangkok based Asian Disaster Preparedness center put it in a recent workshop here, "More money is put into providing relief than in prevention measures, because relief is politically m ore popular."

In the wake of the recent floods in India, Agriculture Minister Balram Jakhar announced that he would recommend larger sums for the states to deal with natural calamities. Mr. Jakhar conceded that lack of funds was affecting relief work. Only recently has the Indian government realized the urgency of working out a comprehensive policy to control floods.

"The floods are essentially man-made," says Vinod Sharma, an environmentalist at the Indian Institute of Public Administration. "Large-scale deforestation, especially in the Himalayas, has resulted in [massive] soil erosion.... All this soil washes into the rivers, raising the riverbeds and decreasing the carrying capability of the rivers," he says. "So, when it rains, the rivers flood that much more easily, and the effect is that much worse."

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The only short-term solution, Mr. Sharma says, is the proposition of desilting rivers - an expensive strategy. In the long term, he says, the way to control floods is large-scale afforestation and other ecological measures.

"I know that is expensive," he says, "but it is cheaper than having to provide relief on such a large scale."

A large chunk of India's disaster relief fund for the year already has been spent in its flooded Punjab province alone. Punjab is not usually prone to floods, but this year has seen some of the most expensive damage in India.

Unless Asian countries work to mitigate floods, this will become the major obstacle to progress in the continent, experts say.

In Nepal, where almost 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, nearly 2,000 people have perished in the floods - the worst in the last 100 years. The country's capital, Kathmandu, has been isolated by the floods, and the government is seeking international assistance to rebuild before the tourist season, Nepal's No. 1 foreign exchange earner, begins again in September.

"This is a severe blow to our economy, which was just beginning to show signs of growth," says a Nepali diplomat in New Delhi.

Across the border, in Bangladesh, 300 have died in the floods and nearly 21 million people have been rendered homeless.

With mounting casualties and damages, complaints are already being heard about the adequacy of relief work.

In Nepal, members of Parliament and businessmen allege that relief work undertaken by the government with the help of the Nepali Army has not yet reached the worst-affected areas.

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