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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

India: ‘Link volunteers’ connect communities to hygiene

© UNICEF India/2005/Rahi
Link leaders at Kallarin, Tamil Nadu.

By Arabella Phillimore and Radikha Srivastava

TAMIL NADU, India, June 2005 – Tsunami survivors clad in blue UNICEF t-shirts are helping other survivors maintain sanitation and a clean environment in their temporary homes.

The Nagapattinam district was especially hard hit by the waves last December. Many of the survivors lost their homes and are living in temporary ‘tsunami shelters’ made of tin.

The blue-clad ‘link volunteers’ – so named because they act as a link between tsunami-affected communities and the authorities – move around the shelters in the blazing heat, verifying water quality, checking toilets and looking for garbage.

Training in basic health and hygiene for the volunteers was provided by UNICEF.

Meaningful work

The volunteers take immense pride in their jobs. They serve as the first point of contact for the district administration.

“When senior government officials come to our shelter they speak first to us. We are given more importance than the local leaders,” says P. Sumathy, a link volunteer. Sumathy lost her son and father-in-law in the tsunami and lives among other survivors in Kallar, Nagapattinam district.

Another volunteer, Raju, says his job is to check the quality of drinking water every day. “I have been given a chloroscope to check the amount of chlorine in the water. A lot of people gather around me whenever I carry out the check. I feel important and I know I am doing some meaningful work,” he says.

Lakshmi, who lives in a tsunami shelter, knows how the link volunteers are helping. She says, “We cook fish everyday. Before, we used to simply throw fish scales, entrails and other waste in the open. Then link volunteers told us that doing so would not only invite flies but would also become a breeding ground for diseases.”

© UNICEF India/2005/Rahi
Link volunteers take enormous pride in their work.

All shelters to be covered

Lakshmi and others in the shelter now discard the waste into a big pit and take turns covering it with a thick layer of sand. Lakshmi says the volunteers also educated them on the importance of using toilets. “We have now started using the community toilet and find it very convenient,” she says.

“Being present in the field within the first few hours of the disaster, we recognized the need to establish a direct link with the affected communities so that their concerns could be addressed quickly and effectively,” says UNICEF Tamil Nadu State Representative Tim Schaffter.

“The state government has used the link volunteer initiative in a remarkable manner, bringing benefits to the affected people. These volunteers have also helped a great deal in getting others to adopt hygiene practices.”

The concept of link volunteers was introduced as an experiment in 10 shelters with 84 trained volunteers. “We have seen the difference these people have made to the lives of the survivors. We are now training more volunteers so that all the shelters in Tamil Nadu are covered,” says Mr. Schaffter.



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