Preparedness helps Bengal tide over floods
by Priyanka Khanna
Murshidabad- Jaiganj Block, October 12, 2006 -- “My name Haboha Sultan, father Barik Sheikh, Bagicha Para (village), Murshidabad Thana (police station),” says the two-years-eight-months-old in a frightened, sing-song, hard-to-hear voice.
He speaks in monosyllables, never blinking his big black eyes. Not knowing why strangers are questioning him nor knowing what words like village or police station really mean, he rattles off what has been ingrained in him over the last few months.
Besides Haboha is another very shy two-year-old -- Rohina Parveen -- who barely manages to mutter her name. Her tiny voice is soon drowned by that of older, more eager children who want to show-off that if they got lost due to a disaster, they would be able to tell their own name, father’s name and name of the police station nearest to their house and get reunited with their parents.
Such preparedness for a calamity is commonplace in this area that is some 20-kms from the main town in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. The area has not gone under water yet. But nearly half of the district is flooded. Heavy rains and release of excess water from dams has affected about 1,300,000 people.
Family Survival Kit (SFK)
Encouraged and facilitated by UNICEF-supported Community Based Disaster Preparedness (CBDP) programme, most families in flood-prone area that are likely to be submerged are following at least some practices that will help them tide over the initial phase of a tragedy.
Anjura Bibi, who says she is probably 19-years-old, is one such person. Eight-months into her second pregnancy (first child was born prematurely and died three days after birth), she has kept basic kit for child delivery provided by UNICEF-supported community mobilisers ready along with sun-dried clothes in an easy takeaway bundle.
Like most families in the village, she has prepared a plastic bag containing dry food, cooking fuel, matches, ORS sachets, plastic-covered important documents, etc. Mud-house after mud-house, we came across people who have prepared similar Family Survival Kit (SFK) as explained by CBDP community mobilisers.
Going house-to-house along with members of the locally elected self-governing council called Panchayat, the mobilisers have been explaining the importance of preparedness to each family so that they are able to survive initial phases of a disaster.
But the SFKs had varying quantities and some were already opened though the area is not yet flooded. “We had no food to eat. We had to take food out of the bag (SFK),” says Vasila Bibi, adding: “Our village is not under water but the farm where my husband works as a daily wager is, so there was no money to buy food yesterday and I had to open the kit.” Some families had not stocked any food whatsoever as they had no money to spare.
But they are all involved in hectic activities to prepare for the impending disaster. While some people could be seen digging up drains for water drainage, others were making indigenous tin-and-wood single-person capacity boats or preparing bamboo-shelters.
UNICEF Project Officer Jude Henriques says: “The Community Based Disaster Preparedness programme was launched after devastating floods in the year 2000 in 3,000 different villages. Working with the administration and through a network of non-government organisations, the project aims to mitigate the impact of disasters on affected populations with focus on women and children.”
Starting with mapping of history of disasters, vulnerable and safe areas were identified and number of people and livestock in each zone were registered. Complete details of zero-to-three-years-old, three-to-five-years-old and five-to-14-years-old children; women, including pregnant and lactating women; physically challenged; and the elderly were collected.
With the action plan approved, 40 to 50 youths in each Gram Sansad were divided into six task forces, each responsible for specific tasks, including early warning, spreading awareness about preparedness, taking care of children and women, elevating hand-pumps to protect water from contamination, etc. Now as water continues to be released from dams into low-lying lands, the preparedness put in by the people will be tested.
Some signs of success are already quantifiable. According to Jayanto Choudhury, head of UNICEF-supported NGO carrying out CBDP project in this area, the community awareness and preparedness during the ongoing floods has brought down cases of diarrhea. “People have been sensitised and are not drinking water from contaminated sources,” he said.
Elsewhere, task force members could be seen engaged in evacuation and distribution of relief materials in flood-affected areas. In addition to propositioned emergency supplies, UNICEF is working with district officials and civil-society organisations to bring some succor to displaced community members.