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Heat grips India


A heat wave gripped southeastern India even as thousands fell ill from malaria in the remote northeastern regions, according to government reports.

More than 1,000 deaths have been attributed to the heat wave as temperatures notched past 120 degrees. Even more may have been affected in remote rural villages unable to quickly communicate their needs.

Early monsoon rains had already begun to cool some regions Thursday, and forecasters said the peak of summer in southern India was largely over. Shifting northern desert winds were to blame for the abnormal heat.

Hardest hit by the heat was the Andhra Pradesh state, especially those areas on the Bay of Bengal. Andhra Pradesh recorded the highest one-week death toll from a heat wave in India's history. Tin-roofed homes turned into ovens, and many elderly people were overcome with the heat. Farm laborers who would not stop working also died from the heat. Ponds and rivers dried up, and fields were scorched. Residents also reported birds falling from the sky in mid-flight, and livestock collapsing.

Agriculture in India provides employment for 70 percent of its one billion people.

Heat waves also struck Andhra Pradesh in 1996 and 1998. Andhra Pradesh, home to some 76 million people, is India's fifth largest state.

Heat was also affecting some northern areas of the country. The Indian government reported it was investigating whether global warming or deforestation was the cause.

Meanwhile in northeastern India, 51 people have died from malaria, and 10,000 more are ill. Hardest hit is Assam, which has many areas unreachable by car.

Teams of doctors, nurses, paramedics, and microbiologists have trekked to affected areas with anti-malarial drugs. Mosquitoes have become resistant to the commonly used drug chloroquine, and the medical teams were using other drugs.

India has also been wracked by violence over the past few months, reported Action by Churches Together (ACT), a coalition of faith-based relief and disaster response agencies. More than 665 people have been killed in Gujarat since communal violence and rioting broke out in February 2002. Some 58 people were killed at Godhra on the border of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in an attack on a train carrying Hindu activists on their way back from Ayodhya.

This triggered violence against the Muslim minority in large parts of the state, including Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, Rajkot, Morbi, Bhavnagar, and the north-eastern tribal belt, bordering south Rajasthan.

ACT partners -- including Churches Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI), and Lutheran World Service India -- have been able to use their presence to bring representatives of both majority and minority communities together and to mobilize these communities at the village level to maintain peace. This has resulted in keeping the villages in the respective working areas free of violent incidents.

The three partners have monitored the situation closely, not only to see the impact of the implementation of longstanding earthquake rehabilitation programs but also to provide assistance to those affected by violence. However, ACT partners reported they are very cautious in taking up high profile activities.

UELCI is providing food, bedding, and medical assistance to some 1,500 families affected by violence in north Gujarat and around Ahmedabad.

A devastating Jan. 26 earthquake in western India killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. Faith-based groups, including Church World Service (CWS), focused their relief efforts on the western and central parts of the state of Gujarat.

The most affected area included the cities of Ahmedabad, Bhuj, Jamnagar, Rajkot, and Surendranagar. In addition, many smaller towns and villages were completely inaccessible for weeks. Some were simply erased from the map. Damage included major losses to multi-storied buildings, rural housing, roads, rails, and electricity and telecommunication links.

CWS sent financial aid to CASA that provided blankets for some 15,000 survivors in the affected areas of the western state of Gujarat. CASA has a 54-year history of responding to disasters.

CASA relief teams worked in the cities of Ahmedabad, Mehsana, and Bhuj to distribute food, water, and blankets. In all, CASA distributed aid for at least 35,000 families. ACT and CASA teams also distributed cooking utensils, shelter, clothes, and other basic relief items.

In the aftermath of the quake, CWS also provided funding to CWS Pakistan for blankets, ground sheeting, and plastic tarps for 1,000 families in the Mirpurkhas division of Sindh Province, Pakistan, just across the border from India and some 50 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.

Many families from remote areas populated by religious and ethnic minorities lost their homes and livelihoods.

CASA has now turned its attention to a two-year rehabilitation program with a special focus on linking long-term rehabilitation with developmental programs incorporating disaster preparedness and mitigation.

The cornerstone of these efforts is a housing reconstruction project, specifically 1,249 earthquake- and cyclone-resistant homes for 1,249 families the villages of Kotharia, Ambala, Koyali, Fatsar, Kerali, Jaliya, Devani, and Kandrai, as well as reconstruction of schools and other public buildings in the seven villages. All houses will be single story structures and will be constructed using stone/brick masonry.

Also included in these reconstruction efforts will be a security and jobs program for the families and disaster preparedness training.

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