A piercing wail cuts through the heat of the neighbourhood as female mourners return from their ritual bath. They make their way to the house of a flood victim, where a Hindu prayer ceremony, or puja is to be held.

As they round the corner, it becomes clear that the person ‘keening’ – a traditional grieving process of wailing – is an older relative. The flood victim’s widow, Shila Devi, still seems to be in shock as she exchanges a few quiet words with visitors.

Her two younger children cling to her, while her eldest daughter smooths her mother’s head scarf.

Her husband, Suresh Sah, was on his way home from the family’s shop selling rice and potatoes, when he was swept away by the flood waters, close to a local school.

Worst-affected community

Suresh was one of 18 dead or missing in this small town of Rautahat that sits on Nepal’s southern border with India, making it among the worst-affected communities in the country.

As to how she plans to manage now that he is gone, Shila says to face the immediate future, she’s counting on the government’s payment of about 2,000 dollars for families who have lost their kin to the flood.

“It is God who decides these things,” Shila says when asked about where the responsibility for his death lies.

Heavy monsoon rain once again drums down in the early morning hours, leaving the town’s waterways overflowing and ominous mild floods swamp the streets again.

Traumatic few days

The contrast between baking dry heat and torrential downpours lies at the heart of Rautahat’s traumatic past few days.

“The floods came as a complete surprise to people,” explains Sanjeev Mallik, President of the local Nepal Red Cross branch in his office, which overlooks a flooded field.

After experiencing decades of flooding, the problem abated after the construction of small dams on two local rivers and a serious drought.

“People were so happy about this that they had completely forgotten about the risk of flooding and they have no memory of severe floods. People were instead focused on ways of pumping water from the ground, and local authorities declared it a dry area before deciding on more development of irrigation systems.”

Raising awareness

In the face of such collective amnesia about the flood danger, Mallik says the Red Cross did whatever it could to continue raising awareness and save as many lives as possible.

Even when it was bone dry they included flood scenarios in annual disaster simulation drills.

When the heavy rains began and fears of flooding increased, special warnings were broadcast on local FM radio encouraging people to seek safety. The warnings were issued even though some officials feared criticism in case there were no floods.

It’s interaction like this between the Red Cross and local authorities that is crucial to the organisation’s ability to save lives and help the most vulnerable, says Dibya Raj Poudel, Nepal Red Cross Head of Humanitarian Values and Communication.

“This is why we continue to push for a Red Cross law in Nepal, which many other countries have. It would set out in clear legal terms our role as auxiliary to the government, enabling a more clearly defined role in helping communities during disasters,” Dibya adds.

The immediate focus for local Red Cross volunteers and staff is to get relief supplies out to those who need them as quickly as they can.

“These have been the heaviest rains we have seen in several years,” Mallik reflects.

Families like Suresh’s on both sides of the border have suffered a painful loss. It underlines the continuing struggle between the need for water and the deadly dangers the rains can bring.