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Monsoon floods force 19 million to flee

186 believed dead in India, Bangladesh

Flooding in Mumbai forced people yesterday to wade through knee-deep water that covered many streets after severe overnight rains overwhelmed sewers. Flooding in Mumbai forced people yesterday to wade through knee-deep water that covered many streets after severe overnight rains overwhelmed sewers. (Punit Paranjpe/Reuters)

LUCKNOW, India -- Torrents of water washed away homes, crops, and cows, leaving hungry and frightened villagers perched in treetops or on roofs as the death toll rose yesterday from monsoon rains across northern India and Bangladesh.

Vital to farmers, the annual rains are a blessing and a curse for the subcontinent -- a fact highlighted by official tallies: At least 186 people have been killed and 19 million driven from their homes in recent days.

Even in areas where the rains are no worse than usual, the monsoon disrupted life. In Mumbai, the country's bustling financial capital, people waded through knee-deep water that covered many streets yesterday after severe overnight rains flooded sewers.

The South Asian monsoon season runs from June to September as the rains work their way across the subcontinent. Last year more than 1,000 people died, most from drowning, landslides, or house collapses.

This year, estimates of total deaths vary wildly from a few hundred to well over a thousand.

With hundreds of villages submerged across the fertile plains that stretch along the southern edge of the Himalayas, people were taking refuge wherever they could. In Uttar Pradesh state, in northern India, women and children were spotted screaming for help from treetops.

In parts of the state -- where an additional 8 inches of rain fell yesterday -- river levels rose so quickly that villagers had no time to save any belongings.

"The gush of water was so sudden we did not get the time to react," Vinod Kumar, a resident of a flooded village in Basti district, told Enadu TV.

He made it out, but lost everything. "We do not have food, kerosene, or even a match box," he said. "Officials are saying relief is coming, but nothing has come so far."

Health workers were fanning out across parts of Bangladesh and India to try to prevent the spread of such waterborne diseases as diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera.

In northwestern Bangladesh, farmer Rahmat Sheikh and his family were among 2,000 people who fled their flooded village for higher ground in the Sirajganj district.

"The floods have taken away all I had," said Sheikh, 40. "Rice paddies in the field, two cows, and my house all are gone. I don't know how we will now survive."

Sirajganj, 65 miles northwest of the capital of Dhaka, is one of Bangladesh's hardest-hit areas, and officials said they were sending in food, water, and medicine.

Like most of those displaced, Sheikh will return to his village as soon as the waters recede and start rebuilding.

The more immediate problem is finding food. With many farms and crops destroyed -- costing an already poor region millions of dollars -- food shortages were becoming a pressing problem.

One woman in Uttar Pradesh who identified herself only as Savitra said she had not "eaten anything for the last two days."

"Whatever we had at our home was washed away," she told Enadu TV.

In the northeastern state of Assam, Haneefa Begum and her two children said the portions of rice and lentils at their makeshift relief camp were not enough to stave off hunger.

So far this year, some 14 million people in India and 5 million in Bangladesh have been displaced or marooned by flooding, according to government figures. At least 132 people have died in recent days because of the floods in India and 54 people have died in Bangladesh.

In one of the worst single instances this year, 28 people died Wednesday when an overcrowded boat evacuating them capsized in a rain-swollen river.

In Assam, about 100,000 displaced people were staying in government relief camps, and hundreds of thousands of others set up makeshift dwellings of their own. Millions of people have been cut off from the rest of the country.

The floods in Bangladesh inundated parts of a major highway connecting Dhaka with much of the rest of the country.

India's Meteorological Department said unusual monsoon patterns this year have led to heavier than normal rains.

"We've been getting constant rainfall in these areas for nearly 20 days," said B. P. Yadav, a spokesman for the department.