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Women and children bear the brunt of flood effects in Bihar

UNICEF Image: India, Bihar, flood
© UNICEF India/ 2007
Mother and newborn child in a temporary camp for people displaced by the floods in India’s Bihar state.

By Robin Giri

BIHAR, India, 23 August 2007 – Three days after giving birth to her son, Subhagi Devi, 30, had to make a midnight escape from the floods that have submerged her village in East Champaran, Bihar state.

Clutching her precious cargo – often hoisting the newborn above her head – she made the arduous trek, wading through waist-high water to safety on the embankment. “I was scared all the time,” she recalled. “Sometimes I thought I would lose my footing, but I was more scared for my baby.”

Her 20-year-old neighbour Parmila Devi, who was in the last stages of pregnancy, was lucky to be rescued by boat. Aided only by her sister-in-law, and with the rains pounding away at the thin tarpaulin tent above them, Parmila gave birth three days later.

Drained by the emotional nightmare of the flood disaster, these two mothers – and many thousands more in the same situation across India and the rest of flood-ravaged South Asia – face the continuing challenge of providing for themselves and their children.

‘Relief efforts must be stepped up’

The monsoon floods in northern Bihar state this year have been overwhelming in magnitude and severity compared to previous years. The particular embankment where Subhagi and Parmila are taking refuge has been transformed into a makeshift home to the 20,000 inhabitants of Madhubani and Bardaha villages for the past several weeks.

UNICEF Image: India, Bihar, flood
© UNICEF India/ 2007
Displaced people in Bihar line up for medical relief supplies provided by UNICEF.

At least 2 million people are living outdoors in emergency camps across Bihar. Nearly 15 million people in 19 districts, including 1.5 million children under the age of five, have been affected by the flooding. According to authorities, 6,000 villages remain submerged and more than 100,000 people are cut off because roads are still inundated or have been washed away.

The government has been using helicopters to drop relief supplies and food items, but many complain that it is too little.

“The situation is still critical for many, and the relief efforts must be stepped up and sustained if all the people are to benefit from the relief operations,” said UNICEF India’s Chief of Health, Marzio Babille.

Emergency supplies and medical care

To combat the threat of malnutrition for Bihar’s women and children, UNICEF has rushed 250,000 iron and folic tablets for nursing mothers and pregnant women like Subhagi and Parmila, as well as fortified biscuits for children under five.

Temporary medical camps supported by UNICEF have been set up among some of the most affected populations. Ninety mobile medical units and about 200 medical relief sites have also been deployed to the districts.

UNICEF Image: India, Bihar, flood
© UNICEF India/ 2007
To improve sanitation at temporary camps for flood victims in Bihar, UNICEF is supporting the construction of community latrines.

Travelling in off-road vehicles, the mobile units are providing desperately needed clinical treatment to nursing mothers and pregnant women; conducting a mass immunization campaign to protect children from measles; and providing Vitamin A supplements to boost their immunity.

The next challenge

Even before the onset of the crisis, UNICEF’s pre-positioned emergency supplies in 1,000 villages across seven districts were distributed through a network of local non-governmental partners. These supplies included 5,000 plastic sheets for tents, 130,000 sachets of oral rehydration salts, thousands of water purification tablets, temporary toilet sets, family hygiene kits, delivery kits and other relief materials.

Additional items are being sent to the most affected districts.

Staff members from the Bihar office as well as UNICEF’s country office in New Delhi are in the field, coordinating the relief efforts with the government of Bihar and working to ensure that the most vulnerable flood victims – particularly children and women – receive their share of relief materials.

More than 10,000 community volunteers have also been mobilized to help provide active health surveillance and early detection of water-borne and infectious diseases such as measles and cholera.

The next challenge is to help the children and families of Bihar to begin the process of rebuilding, and return to some form of a normal life.



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