Wednesday August 30, 2017

Matthew Marek says he’s never seen “so much water in one place at one time.”

He isn’t talking about Texas, where tropical storm Harvey has killed at least 20 people and left thousands more stranded in and around Houston.

He means Bangladesh, where he works as the head of disaster relief for the Red Cross. Half of the country is flooded by waters from the Jamuna River during a particularly brutal South Asian monsoon season.

Death tolls vary, but the New York Times reports that more than 1,000 people have died in the floods across Bangladesh, India and Nepal this summer, and the United Nations says 41 million people have been directly affected.

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People in India wade through a flooded street during heavy rain showers in Mumbai on Tuesday. More heavy rain is expected Wednesday. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images)

The rains have led to wide-scale flooding in a broad arc stretching across the Himalayan foothills in the three countries, causing landslides, damaging roads and electric towers, and washing away tens of thousands of homes and vast swathes of farmland.

“Most people are cut off from their daily lives, their daily sustenance, their clean drinking water, their access to food,” Marek said. 

“We’re still in a response phase. We’re still making sure that people have clean drinking water — without it, there can be a lot of health issues — and that people have clean food as well, and that people are able to sustain themselves in the immediate weeks and months to come.”

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A baby suffering from dehydration cries after being rescued from a flooded village in the eastern state of Bihar, India, on Aug. 23. The flooding makes it hard for people to access clean drinking water. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Some people, he said, “have lost everything.” Others, he said, are getting by, living their lives in spite of the disaster.

“You see children playing in the waters of their flooded backyard farms. You see farmers tilling the land, harvesting crops. You see activity. You see what you would normally see,” he said. “Unfortunately, you see it with a couple metres of water inundating our town.”

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A man carrying lunch boxes walks on the water as roads are flooded due to heavy rain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on July 26. Red Cross worker Matthew Marek says people have to go about their lives, even in the midst of crisis. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

In Bangladesh, Marek said, the waters are starting to recede. 

But torrential monsoon rains paralyzed India’s financial capital, Mumbai, for a second day Wednesday as the streets turned into rivers and people waded through waist-deep waters.

Commuter trains shut down, buses were half-submerged under water, and even the deluged airport had to divert flights to other cities.

“It’s a regional flood,” Marek said. “The monsoon rains, the floods — they don’t understand country borders.”

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Villagers ride on a boat at a flood affected area in Saptari District, Nepal, on Aug. 14. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

As he and his colleagues work in South Asia to assist people affected by the monsoon floods, Marek is also watching the news back home.

He said he doesn’t begrudge Houston its extensive news coverage. His own aunt and uncle were recently rescued from their flooded home in the Texas city, he said.

“Disaster is a personal experience, so I don’t want to take anything away from the individuals that are hurt by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. I think, again, it’s an individual experience to be hit by a disaster. Why does one get more attention than the other? Yeah, that’s a good question.”

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Bangladeshi men walk in water in an area submerged by flood in Kurigram, northern Bangladesh, on Aug. 14. (AFP/Getty Images)

He said he even saw a picture of Houston’s flooded streets on the cover of a local newspaper on Tuesday.

“Even in Bangladesh there’s a photo of floods in Houston, yet all around, there’s disaster in this country.”

With files from Associated Press

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