Water, environment and sanitation

Water, Environment and Sanitation

 

UNICEF strengthens community initiatives in Car Nicobar

© UNICEF/India/2005
Ireena Mark visits the broken down health center at Small Lapathy

by Savita Varde-Naqvi

The idyllic island of Car Nicobar which bore the full fury of last year's tsunami havoc lies in the middle of the Indian Ocean. If it has found only a cursory mention in the annals of the massive restoration and rehabilitation work being carried out across several nations, then part of the reason could be the island's inaccessibility.

There is no direct air link between India and Car Nicobar. A two-and-a-half hour flight from Chennai to Port Blair, state capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and another hour-and-a-half helicopter ride to Car Nicobar, if you are lucky to get a seat, could test the most keenly planned logistical operations.

Ireena Mark is the First Captain of the Small Lapathy village on Car, the only woman in the Tribal Council, the decision-making body of the indigenous Nicobarese community. She is one of fifteen Captains who are elected to represent the fifteen villages that make up this tiny, yet strategically located island of less than 21,000 people.It is the initiatives of indigenous leaders like Ireena Mark who made timely relief and rehabilitation possible in Car Nicobar.

Another reason why the tsunami devastation in Car Nicobar may not have found much mention in the media could perhaps be ascribed to an essentially self sufficient culture of the Nicobarese people. Their language has no use for words like ‘compensation’, ‘orphan’, ‘trafficking’ which became part of the post tsunami discourse.

Ireena Mark is the First Captain of the Small Lapathy village on Car, the only woman in the Tribal Council, the decision-making body of the indigenous Nicobarese community. She is one of fifteen Captains who are elected to represent the fifteen villages that make up this tiny, yet strategically located island of less than 21,000 people.

It is the initiatives of indigenous leaders like Ireena Mark who made timely relief and rehabilitation possible in Car Nicobar. The role of leaders like Ireena together with UNICEF's presence as the only international organization assisting the Government of Andaman
and Nicobar right from the early relief phase has been quite unique.

Within a week of the disaster, a team of UNICEF doctors was on the islands to help Health Authorities do a rapid assessment of the situation and draw up micro plans to reach emergency services to children in the most inaccessible areas. They ensured that a mass measles immunization campaign was carried out along with vitamin A supplementation to cover all children between six months and five years of age across the relief camps.

UNICEF also assisted in the provision of clean drinking water and distributed 110,000 packets of ORS in the camps. Essential supplies including cold chain equipment, instruments for testing water quality, 21,000 impregnated bed nets and 40,000 tubes of mosquito repellent were procured and distributed in the worst affected islands of Car Nicobar, Katchal, Kamorta, Teressa, Trinket and Great Nicobar through the Department of Health Services.

Captain Ireena's Small Lapathy village with some 200 households was right on the seashore. It had swaying coconut palms, tapioca trees and tall bandanas that perfumed the air. There were sweet water wells and drinking water was never short. The villagers had twenty fishing boats between them and went fishing when they needed to. They reared pigs and poultry, grew paddy and were a happy self contained community.

'Erstwhile Small Lapathy' as a new signboard pointing to the ruined village reads, had a playground where children played football and where villagers gathered when the ground trembled like never before and the tsunami "higher than two coconut trees" came rushing towards
them. It is from this playground that First Captain Ireena ordered them to flee towards the jungle as fast as their feet could take them!

Even so, three people from her village died and ten are still missing. Car Nicobar reported an overall tally of 270 dead and 584 missing. First Captain Ireena’s assessment of the impending danger and her quick response saved many lives.

© UNICEF/India/2005
UNICEF assists in providing the material and human resources to immunize infants and mothers in the tsunami ravaged Car Nicobar Island. Mrs. Henna with her 10 month old baby arriving at the camp.

Entire villages of Car Nicobar like Small Lapathy, Arong, Sawai, Kinmai, Mus, Chukchukia, Kimius, Kakana, Tapoiming, Tamaloo were completely wiped out. They have all had to be relocated to higher, safer inland locations by clearing coconut groves and forests of tapioca, bamboo and bandanas that are crucial to the livelihood of the Nicobarese people.

This community has always lived in close proximity and harmony with the sea in traditional homes elevated on timber poles and made of local materials such as palm ferns, reeds, bamboo strips and barks of the bandana. Moving into galvanized iron shelters away from the sea makes them uneasy. But they are not complaining. We saw interesting innovations combining local building material with galvanized iron and welded poles, thus making their temporary shelters more like homes and also cooler.

With 3866 'intermediate shelters' now built in Car Nicobar, relief operations have clearly moved into the recovery mode. UNICEF is using this opportunity to build back better by adding a quality dimension to reconstruction and to services that are being restored.

"We do not have such a word as 'orphans' in our vocabulary" says Mr Thomas Philip, Captain of Mus and Secretary of the Tribal Council. "We treat them like our own and look after them. We do not have orphanages here!"

As the Andaman Public Works Department was building 'intermediate shelters,' UNICEF deployed six water and sanitation engineers and 44 expert masons over a period of three months to construct close to 7000 low cost latrines with leach pits. This was achieved with community participation facilitated by the tribal captains, with villagers digging pits, working with the masons to fix the toilet sets and constructing super structures.

Hygiene education sessions conducted by UNICEF engineers around the use of latrines, washing hands and chlorinating drinking water sources has helped create sanitary conditions in the shelters. Also 500-litre water tanks provided by UNICEF have been installed near all the relocated villages to store drinking water.

Even though health and nutritional indicators of Nicobarese children are better than the Indian average, a damaged health infrastructure, shortage of food and medicine, and reduced staff are beginning to take a toll on the children. UNICEF is working with the Government of Andaman and Nicobar to restart the child care centres called 'anganwaadis' where growth monitoring of pre-school age children could be done.

"The task at hand is not to let the health and nutritional status of children slide," says Dr Mahesh Shrinivas of the Swami Vivekanand Youth Movement hired by UNICEF to provide technical support to the Bishop John Richardson District Hospital in Car Nicobar. He and Jeane Diana, Auxiliary Nurse and Midwife (ANM) from the destroyed health centre in Small Lapathy go from village to village with a cool box carrying routine immunization vaccines, and a stock of auto-disable syringes and basic medical supplies bringing health and medical services to the doorstep of the displaced villagers.

We accompanied Dr Mahesh and ANM Jeane Diana to Arong village on one of their monthly immunisation drives, 10 kms uphill through a thick forest. In a tent provided by UNICEF, an improvised health centre is established instantaneously and mothers, children and old people start
trickling in slowly.

Isaw Nemiah, ten-years old has been having fever, is given presumptive treatment for malaria and his blood sample taken for diagnosis. There is a timely demonstration of the use of bed nets and mosquito repellent to highlight the importance of personal protection against malaria. Those who missed receiving bednets, receive them after the demo and 'odomos' tubes supplied by UNICEF are distributed to all. Dr. Sahu, Medical Superintendent of the District Hospital ensures that larvicidal operations are carried out with DDT sprays and extensive fogging in and around cesspools left behind by the tsunami and aggravated by the monsoons.

Titus, Naomi Felix's one-year old son looks emaciated and is coughing violently. He is put on antibiotics for lower respiratory tract infection. He is also diagnosed for 2nd grade malnutrition and asked to report to the district hospital in case he does not improve. Plendina Edwin is twenty-five, pregnant and anaemic. She is given folic acid and asked to eat green vegetables. Everyone knows this can only be a theoretical possibility since green vegetables are almost impossible to come by! Ms Henna is twenty years old and has brought little Chamberlaine for his vaccinations. First he is given his polio drops by the ANM followed by an injection of the measles vaccine by the ANM. His mother gets some counseling on exclusive breastfeeding along with complementary foods since the baby is six months old. Henna's husband disappeared in the tsunami but the large joint family, called the ‘tuhet’ has absorbed the baby as one of their own.

"We do not have such a word as 'orphans' in our vocabulary" says Mr Thomas Philip, Captain of Mus and Secretary of the Tribal Council. "We treat them like our own and look after them. We do not have orphanages here!"

 

 

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