Flood waters begin to recede in Bangladesh. But vast relief effort needed to reach millions of isolated families

The flood water that swept over most of Bangladesh last week began to recede yesterday in some of the hardest-hit parts of the country. Although 12 major rivers were still rising, three of the mightiest rivers - the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna - have started to diminish. The government estimates the floods have killed 550 people. This figure is generally regarded as low, and daily tallies reported by Dacca newspapers put the death toll at 1,122.

Some 21 million people have lost their homes in the floods, which have affected 50 of the country's 64 districts, according to Information Minister Mahbubur Rahman. He added that 25 million people had lost relatives, a home or business, crops or other property in this country of 110 million.

There are still massive problems in getting food, medicine, and safe drinking water to these millions of marooned people.

Officials are concerned that the number of people suffering adverse effects as a result of drinking contaminated water will increase. (The Health Ministry reports more than 100,000 are suffering from diarrhea and nearly 6,000 from dysentery).

``We will have to feed the people for two months at least,'' President Hussain Muhammad Ershad said after taking a helicopter flight yesterday over villages and rice paddies swamped by flood waters that cover three-fourths of the nation.

The government has used boats and helicopters to ferry food, mainly rice, to people stranded on bits of high ground. But with only a dozen helicopters in service, the task is proceeding slowly.

One helicopter pilot said he had made 30 relief flights in the last three days. ``In some villages we can't even land. We just have to drop the food.''

Here, in the capital, men, women, and children lined up at distribution centers in waist-deep flood water long before officials and volunteers arrived with sacks of rice and containers of drinking water. But many went away empty-handed as supplies soon ran out, witnesses said.

Officials say people in rural areas face far worse conditions. The floods have completely isolated about 10 million people living in remote areas.

``People have lived for days together by drinking flood water and eating food even animals will not touch,'' said Nurul Islam in Atti, a village five miles northwest of Dacca.

Unable to move, thousands of families are facing starvation or death from snake bites and disease as they huddle on river embankments or cling to their submerged homes. ``We have no food, no sleep, and nowhere to go,'' said Tabarak Mollah, a resident of Kafrul, a township three miles from Dacca. ``We live under constant threat from poisonous snakes.'' The family's misery was compounded when armed men in a speedboat looted furniture and clothing from their home.

The floods have destroyed 3 million tons of rice and other crops worth more than $800 million, 2,200 miles of roads, and 250 bridges.

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