150,000 Stranded Kashmiris Face Disease Outbreak After Historic Floods

CREDIT: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

An aerial view of the Dal Lake in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Flash floods have washed away crops, damaged tens of thousands of homes and affected over a million people since Sept. 3, when heavy monsoon rains lashed Pakistan's eastern Punjab province and Kashmir the Himalayan region claimed by both India and Pakistan

It’s not over yet.

Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are stuck in partially underwater buildings nearly two weeks after torrential rains caused major flooding in the Himalayan region of Kashmir and eastern Pakistan, according to local media reports. And the proximity of so many people to dirty, stagnant water is increasing fears that an outbreak of waterborne disease is on the horizon.

“Stagnant water is much more dangerous than flowing water,” Dr. Showkat Zargar, director of the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), told the Africa-based news site eNCA. “There are a lot of animals that have died [and] this is the biggest source of infection.”

In one village called Bonpora, local media reports that standing water is still five feet high and teeming with trash and dead chicken carcasses. The bodies of dead animals and humans have been a major source of concern across Kashmir and east Pakistan, which are dealing with the repercussions of flooding that many called the worst to hit the region in at least 50 years.

The World Health Organization says that flooding can potentially increase the transmission of diseases, but notes that it’s not corpses of animals or humans that pose the biggest health threat. Most disease agents do not survive long in the human body after death, the WHO says, meaning the biggest health risks from floating corpses lies with people who actually take them out of the water.

The biggest risk of infection from flooding comes from water-borne diseases like typhoid fever, chlorea, and hepatitis A, and basic diarrhoeal diseases, the WHO says. That’s largely because when people are stranded in flooded areas, they can quickly lose access to clean drinking water. Local India-based news site Scroll reports that medical camps have been giving out chlorine tablets so that affected residents can purify their own water.

Floods can also indirectly lead to an increase in mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, as standing waters are ideal habitats for breeding mosquito populations. There are, however, no current reports of malarial threat in the region.

As climate change causes more severe flooding events across the globe, disease spread from stagnant waters stands to get worse. The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote a recent report about how the risk of increased waterborne disease spread from climate change stands to impact people in the United States, where more than 10 million households are located within floodplains.

“Extreme precipitation events and outbreaks of waterborne disease are strongly linked: very heavy rainfall events more than double the probability of a waterborne disease outbreak,” the report reads. “Over half of all waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur in the aftermath of heavy rain.”

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, the National Climate Assessment, and multiple peer-reviewed scientific papers show that flooding in some areas of the world stands to increase as the earth’s oceans and atmosphere warm due to human-caused climate change. As carbon dioxide is emitted from burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical forests, it traps heat in the atmosphere, raising the planet’s average temperature. The atmosphere is able to hold more moisture as the temperature rises, meaning more water vapor is available to fall as rain, snow, or hail when storms occur.