Unrelenting monsoon rains have triggered severe flooding in the Indian state of Assam, killing at least 85 people, displacing tens of thousands residents and drowning rare wildlife in a national park.
Since May, raging floodwaters have inundated thousands of villages on the banks of the overflowing Brahmaputra river, forcing more than 145,648 people out of their homes and hampering efforts to prevent the continued spread of coronavirus. As of Monday, 48,197 displaced residents were taking shelter at 276 relief camps set up across the state, while others have returned home after the flood receded in their regions, according to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority.
Famous for its tea plantations, the northeastern state is hit by floods and landslides every year during the monsoon season. But this year’s deluge comes as the country is struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus. India has recorded more than one million confirmed cases, the third highest in the world after the US and Brazil.
The virus is spreading rapidly in Assam, infecting more than 1,000 people every day over the past week. In total, the state of about 25 million people have reported over 25,000 cases, including 58 deaths.
The deluge meanwhile has affected more than 2.4 million people in 24 of the 33 districts in Assam. It has also swamped large swathes of a national park, killing over 100 wild animals, including a dozen rhinos.
Vulnerable wildlife under threat
Stretching over 160 square miles (414 square kilometers) on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra river, the Kaziranga National Park is home to tigers, elephants and the greater one-horned rhinoceroses.
The largest of the rhino species, the one-horned rhinos were once driven close to extinction as they were hunted for sport or killed as agricultural pests. By the start of the 20th century, there were only around 200 of them left in the wild, but successful conservation has since brought them back from the brink.
According to the World Wild Fund for Nature, about 2,400 of them currently live in the Kaziranga National Park, accounting for two thirds of its total population in the world.
More than 80% of the park, however, is now underwater, and 113 wild animals – including about a dozen rhinos – have been drowned, according to park officials.
Park authorities were able to rescue some 140 animals, officials said.
Last week, the park said on its official Twitter account that it rescued a female rhino calf that was separated from her mother. The calf was under care at the park’s rehabilitation and conservation center, it said.
“Every year at this time, the animals move around and they pass through the animal corridor,” Sivakumar said. “We have put more manpower in the corridor so that they can make sure that the animals are safe.”
Taking shelter during a pandemic
The Assam government has issued guidelines on preventive measures for Covid-19 at the relief camps, which requires “all possible steps for ensuring hygiene and social distancing” to be taken to the “maximum extent possible.”
These steps include placing people over 60 years old in separate relief camps or in a separate area in the camps, distributing face masks and ensuring an adequate and available supply of soap and sanitizers.
Authorities are also required to regularly sanitize the camps and conduct random coronavirus swab tests, according to the guidelines.
Charu Chakravorty, principal of a high school in the Barpeta district of Assam which has been turned into a relief camp, said the district government had given the school masks to distribute to the 27 families taking shelter there.
“We are maintaining adequate distance by ensuring only two families live in one classroom and five in the big hall, normally it would be at least double the people in the same area,” he said.
“We are constantly talking to the residents of the camp and telling them about the importance of social distancing, so people are being cautious,” he added.
Thurani Nath, 65, has been living at the school with his wife and a son for more than three weeks. The school provides separate classrooms for people above 60 years old and their families.
“I am definitely very scared of the virus, I know it affects old people more so I am doing everything to maintain distance,” he said.
“But I can’t sit idle, so I help in the daily duties of the camp as much as possible.”
Flooding across the region
Heavy monsoon rains have wreaked havoc across the region.
In Nepal, 114 people have died and 48 remain missing due to devastating floods and landslides, authorities said on Monday.
Massive landslides were recorded at 12 different locations on Monday, killing several people and displacing dozens, the home ministry said in a statement.
Prithvi Highway, Nepal’s key transport route connecting the western part of the country to the capital Kathmandu, has been blocked at several sections after being hit by multiple landslides, officials said.
The water levels at 10 major rivers across Nepal have exceeded the warning mark and people living nearby have been advised to be on alert, the home ministry said.
In Bangladesh, nearly one third of the country – and one fifth of its population – have been affected by floods, Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, spokesman of Flood Forecasting and Warning Center, told CNN last week.
Hundreds of schools across Bangladesh have been turned into shelters for the displaced.
Jahangir Alam, a farmer in Sunamganj district who had sent his family to one of the shelters, said the last time he saw a flood as dangerous as this one was in 2004.
“Over 20 acres of my paddy field went under water. My house is under waist-deep water,” he said.
The situation is unlikely to improve soon, as Nepal, Bangladesh and northeastern India will continue to see very heavy rainfall this week.
CNN’s Sugam Pokharel and Abir Mahmud contributed to reporting.