Fifty-six people have been killed, thousands of homes damaged in heavy rains and hundreds of cholera cases reported.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Benin have been affected by the country's worst flooding in nearly half a century, aid agencies have warned.

An estimated 56 people have been killed and 55,000 homes damaged or destroyed as the west African nation is lashed by rains twice as heavy as usual.

More than 680,000 people have been affected in two-thirds of Benin. Areas previously thought not to be vulnerable to flooding have been devastated and villages wiped out.

Concerns are growing over sanitation, with 846 reported cases of cholera resulting in seven deaths so far, according to the humanitarian agency Care.

It said the deluge — the most extreme since 1963 — had had an impact on 51 out of 77 communes in the last five weeks. Along rivers and lakes, fragile huts have been submerged in up to two metres of water.

“Some communities are used to being flooded every year,” said Helen Hawkins, Care's water, sanitation and hygiene spokeswoman. “They have houses built on stilts and they leave and come back. But this year it's far more severe. Some houses don't survive and some areas not used to flooding are under water.” Hawkins said people initially forced to take refuge on their roofs had been able to go back inside their homes as the waters receded in some areas. But the rains were predicted to continue all week and further flooding was possible.

“Some people have gone to their families, some are sleeping in schools and health centres, which is causing problems for public services. Right now people need shelter, food and clean drinking water.” The overflow from public toilets is sending human waste into water used for drinking, cooking and bathing, heightening the risk of waterborne disease such as cholera. Care said it was distributing food, water purification tablets, soap and mosquito nets, and holding hygiene education sessions for more than 10,000 people.

The agency said the U.K.'s Department for International Development, the U.N., World Food Programme, Plan International and Benin Red Cross were among those responding, but the crisis had barely registered around the world.

Rotimy Djossaya, country director of Care Benin, said: “All the elders agree that they have never seen such flooding. Yet the information has not resonated in the international community. It seems that despite the extraordinary devastation caused by this year's floods, people think it is simply the annual flooding season.” The U.N. is preparing to start an emergency airlift of 3,000 tents from Denmark to provide shelter for some of those left homeless. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

Keywords: floodsBenin

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