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Back to school after the floods

My first days with UNICEF started with flood response

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Interview with UNICEF DPRK Representative

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My first days with UNICEF started with flood response

© UNICEF/DPRK/Kim Myon Sok

Kim Nam Suk, 33, joined the UNICEF Office in Pyongyang, DPR Korea, as Executive Assistant to the UNICEF Representative at the end of July this year. 

Mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Nam Suk is eager to learn about the work that UNICEF does for children and women all over the world.

The devastating floods that hit DPR Korea in August brought her face to face with the tragedy that has affected almost the whole of the country leaving 450 people dead and over 170,000 people homeless.

UNICEF’s immediate response was to rush help to the people who were in urgent need of drinking water and medicines. Anticipating such an emergency, UNICEF had kept “emergency medicine kits” and “family water kits” – with everything from a range of medicines to water purification tablets to buckets and collapsible jerry cans and bars of soap – packed in warehouses in the country. 

Nam Suk accompanied Gopalan Balagopal, UNICEF Representative and other colleagues to visit some of the counties which were badly affected.   “I was taken aback to see the devastation on my first visit to Singye Country on the 20th of August.  An 84-year-old man living by the side of the river said that it was the biggest flood that anyone had seen in their lives”. 

The kindergarten in Singye County was left with only one wall standing – all the desks and benches were washed out.  The people of Singye were relieved to hear that UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to rehabilitate the damaged classrooms so that the children could resume their studies as soon as possible.

The health centre serving over 126,000 people was partially damaged.One wing of the health centre where the maternity ward was located was crushed.  Nam Suk learned to her relief that the United Nations Fund for Population Affairs (UNFPA) was rushing emergency Obstetric care kits to meet just this sort of need.  The help that UNICEF plans in supplementing the medicines and providing “doctors’ bags” equipped with essential equipment like stethoscopes and blood pressure instruments is also just what is needed at this time, the representatives of the local People’s Committee told us.

Two days later on the 30th of August, Nam Suk accompanied the UNICEF Representative along with Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the Acting Resident Coordinator and the Representative of the World Food Programme, and Jeroen Uytterschaut, the Representative of the European Union and ECHO in Pyongyang, to Pongsan County.  Pongsan, a river side county received nearly 400 millimeters of rain in the second week of August and the river overran its embankment on the night of 9th August.

© UNICEF/DPRK/Gopalan Balagopal

“Standing on an embankment looking at Wonjong-Ri, a part of the Pongsan County, I was speechless” said Nam Suk.  “The entire settlement of over a hundred houses was completely demolished.  The people were taking shelter under plastic wraps on the embankment and the surrounding hillsides”.  

“What moved me was the courage and spirit among people like these two ladies we spoke to” said Nam Suk.  They were thankful to the doctors from the Ri Hospital who had come to look after the health of the children and they were doing all they could to rebuild their homes. “The ladies even offered us potatoes they had prepared for their lunch, in the midst of the devastation, that really touched our hearts” added Nam Suk.

The biggest problem in Pongsan is that the pumping station that provided water to the entire county and the nearby town of Sari won was submerged, knocking out three of the four pumping machines.  Now the only sources for clean water are the few deep wells and a reservoir nine kilometers away.

The doctor of the County Hospital told us that the number of children with diarrhea has gone up nearly seven fold, from about 50 or 60 cases normally at this time of the year to 452 cases on the day of our visit. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of City Management to provide water purification tablets for meeting the immediate needs of the population and to help the water systems to be restored into functioning condition as soon as possible.

Every one could see the direct connection between clean water and the incidence of diarrhea and other diseases during this trip. We were happy to see that families know about Oral Hydration Salts (ORS) and there is enough stock of ORS for the present.

 “It was an exciting new experience for me to help Sawsan Rawas, our Nutrition Specialist, in explaining to the people of Tongchon County how to make ORS” said Nam Suk after her third visit to a flood-affected county with the UNICEF Representative, Nutrition Specialist and Education Specialist on 4th September.

Jigok-Ri is up in the mountains accessible after a long drive through winding tracks on the hillsides.   Located close to a dam, it was totally inundated when the embankments of the dam gave way under the enormous pressure of rising waters.  Luckily there was little loss of life as the people were warned in good time to get out of harms. 

Over hundred houses were washed away in this Ri as well.  Among them was the only medical facility for several kilometers, the Ri Clinic.  There are only these two walls left from the building.  The Ri doctor whom we met was very relieved to know that the Doctors Bag with the equipment that he needs will soon be on its way.

UNICEF Education Specialist, Cristina Brugiolo spoke to the teacher and some of the children of the school which was totally washed away, who were then gathering in some of the remaining houses that are left standing, to do everything for their learning continued as soon as possible.  She spoke to them about the “School in a box” that they could use, till such time as the community is able to construct a new structure and UNICEF is able to bring in new furniture and supplies.

“I am happy that at this time I am with UNICEF who are doing their best to bring help to the children of my country” said Nam Suk on her way back to Pyongyang.  “When I put myself in the place of the mothers I saw in the counties I realize how privileged I am to be able to do something to help children who are in so much need of our help. The children need us now”.



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