Huge Toll from South Asia Floods Tied to Environmental Degradation Effects of Deforestation Devastate India, Nepal, and Bangladesh

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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.

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 more 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. …