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India Races to Avert Disease Outbreak as Floodwaters Recede, Leaving 341 Dead

Flooded Kerala

India’s tourist hub of Kerala is shifting its focus to relief and rehabilitation work to assist millions of people affected by the worst flood in a century as rescue operations wind down.

Even as rain eased and waters receded in the southern state, some areas remained inaccessible to those providing relief materials, while nearly a million people are still taking shelter in camps.

“We are slowly winding down rescue operations and concentrating on relief and rehabilitation,” E. Chandrasekharan, Kerala’s revenue minister said by phone. “About 95 percent of people affected have been rescued and put up in relief camps. We are hoping to reach out to every one by end of day today.”

The death toll has climbed to 341 since the monsoon started in June, including 191 since Aug. 8, the state’s disaster management control room said by phone, while the number of evacuees at relief camps is growing. As many as 928,000 people have taken shelter at 3,700 camps. Kerala received 164 percent more than its normal rainfall in the first 19 days of this month.

Chandrasekharan said only a small number of people remain stranded in some pockets that have so far been inaccessible to rescue crews. Helicopters, aircraft and motorboats, as well as thousands of rescue personnel, are providing emergency supplies of food, water, medicines and restoring essential services such as power, fuel, telecommunication and transport links.

The threat of disease outbreaks is now a primary concern, with carcasses in floodwaters raising fears of health risks to the state’s nearly 34 million population. India’s health ministry on Monday was to airlift 60 tonnes of emergency medicines and has put six specialized medical teams on standby, the home ministry statement said.

“Health workers are already surveying the risk of water borne diseases across villages and municipal wards to ensure that steps are taken to avoid any outbreak,” said Chandrasekharan, adding drinking water sources, mainly wells, across homes have been contaminated. “We are stocking essential medical supplies and ensure that each region is being sent adequate quantity of medicines.”

The focus is now on ensuring cleanliness and medicine supply, said R. K. Jain, secretary of India’s National Disaster Management Authority. “We need to ensure there’s no major outbreak of water-borne diseases.”

The floods have caused damage worth $2.8 billion so far, according to a tweet from Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Flights to the state’s commercial capital of Kochi have started on Monday and train services are likely to be restored as waters begin to recede.

Fake News

The state, which is forming committees of private citizens and local municipal officials to help clean up residential areas, is also struggling with rumors on social media.

“We’re not just fighting the after effects of floods,” said Rajesh V. Menon, district organizing commissioner for The Bharat Scouts and Guides. “We’re also fighting against fake news campaigns.” Rumors about electricity shortages and the spread of diseases shared on WhatsApp and Facebook were creating panic, Menon said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an immediate relief of 5 billion rupees as losses continues to mount in one of the country’s top tourist destinations. A special train will carry 1.4 million liters of water and a navy ship with 8,00,000 liters of water will reach Kerala today.

“The immediate concern is rescue and disease but in the long term, India will have to plan taking into account the rising risk of climate events,” said Arivudai Nambi Appadurai, India Adaptation Strategy Head at the World Resources Institute. “This is an extraordinary climate event and is in line with scientists’ predictions for south Asia.”

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