Hospital workers surrounded by murky floodwaters lift the woman on a stretcher and put her on a makeshift raft, made of wooden planks and inflatable tubes, to be ferried from the hospital’s deluged entrance to dry land after receiving cancer treatment.
This is the new normal outside a cancer hospital in Silchar city, in India’s northeastern state of Assam, which is reeling from its worst flooding in recent history.
In the past few weeks, unprecedented levels of rainfall have devastated Assam and neighbouring Bangladesh. More than 130 people have been killed and millions have been displaced. The catastrophic floods have taken a toll on the most vulnerable members of local communities, such as cancer patients.
“Every week the treatment is disrupted and the disease is growing, your chances of beating it keep coming down,” Dr. Poulome Mukherjee, senior oncologist at the flooded Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, told VICE World News.
Dr. Mukherjee and her team have been working tirelessly to continue treating patients despite numerous challenges brought on by the floods, which swept through Assam from June 17.
Despite minimal fuel reserves, frequent power outages and medicine shortages, the 150-bed hospital is currently providing radiation, chemotherapy and a limited number of emergency surgeries to patients.
Almost 300 metres of the road leading up to the hospital is entirely waterlogged, and patients have had to be transported across impromptu rafts to reach its gates or to leave. In one instance, a patient who fell sick and could not be moved was provided chemotherapy on the streetside.
In the recent flooding in Assam, houses, schools and hospitals have been submerged or have had their access cut off. Hundreds of relief camps set up across the state by the government and charities are providing displaced populations with shelter and aid. Eighty-five patients at the institute’s radiation therapy wards have been housed on site. However, many in the city’s surrounding districts including terminal patients have been cut off from essential care.
“I’m really worried about the patients who are not able to reach us in these circumstances. Our home-care support through the local network and through phone lines has been disrupted, so they are almost on their own,” Mukherjee said.
In recent decades, climatic shifts caused by global warming have disrupted monsoon patterns over India’s northeast region, resulting in long dry periods with intermittent short spells of heavy rains. This makes extreme weather events even more destructive for flood-prone Assam, which sits on vast floodplains and is surrounded by hills on all sides.
“A response to rising global temperatures is the overall increase in moisture levels in the atmosphere. This is because warmer air holds more moisture and for a longer time,” Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, told VICE World News.
“Hence, it does not rain for a long time, but when it rains, it dumps all that moisture in a few hours to a few days. So, we get a month’s rain in a day or two.”
The average Indian emits a fraction of carbon dioxide that people in developing countries do, but the country’s northeast, like low-lying Bangladesh, is feeling the brunt of global warming.
A recent report by the Indian government’s science and technology department found that more than half of Assam is highly vulnerable to climate change, placing the state of 36 million residents, including the cancer patients in Silchar, at the front line of the climate crisis.
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