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Asian monsoon floods claim thousands of lives

FLOODS which ravaged India, Nepal and Bangladesh over the past few weeks have claimed more than 4,200 lives and left millions homeless. Officials expect the death toll to rise even higher as epidemics spread among refugees, marooned without food and medicine, are forced to drink water polluted by corpses and rotting animal carcasses.

South Asia depends on the summer monsoon rains for life; without these seasonal showers, large swaths of the sub-continent are punished by drought. But this year, the monsoon deluge, the worst in four decades, instead of bringing renewal, has brought death.

Even before the floods, India, Bangladesh and Nepal were considered three of the world's poorest countries. Now they are in even worse shape. Half of Bangladesh lies under water. Much of India's granaries in Punjab and the north-east states were destroyed. And in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, landslides and floods washed away crops and have left many regions isolated.

Hardest hit was Nepal, where officials put the death toll at more than 1,700 with hundreds missing. The final toll in the kingdom could exceed 3,000, officials in the capital, Kathmandu, said. In India, more than 1,000 people have drowned so far, most of them in Punjab, West Bengal and in the seven north-east states, which over the past week have been cut-off from the rest of the country. Most of the deaths occurred as water from the Himalayan ranges burst the banks of rivers draining into low- lying plains.

The latest weather forecasts show a break in the monsoon, but meteorologists fear that this could only be a short lull. The rains are due to continue for another two months.

In Bangladesh, most of which lies only a few feet above sea-level, more than 21 million people were affected by the floods.

In the tea-growing state of Assam in north-eastern India, more than 2 million people were left homeless. In Bihar state another 2 million had to flee their homes, while in Nepal over 100,000 families had their rice-paddies and thatched mud-huts swept into the raging Himalayan rivers.

Health officials fear an outbreak of cholera and diarrhoea among refugees huddled together in makeshift camps. Parts of India and Bangladesh were already suffering from a new strain of cholera that killed thousands of people before the monsoon struck. Now the cholera epidemic is expected to spread even more alarmingly. Little food or medicine is reaching the millions of stranded flood victims whose regular water supplies are contaminated by sewage and rotting carcasses.

In Punjab, volunteers worked to plug a major breach in the Sutlej river which is threatening to submerge vast areas of fertile farmland - the country's 'bread-basket'.

(Photograph and map omitted)