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Frontline diary: UNICEF doctor’s harrowing tale of survival amidst Bihar floods

© UNICEF India/2008/Caravotta
Sarita Devi and her newborn son rest in a camp after being rescued from the rooftop where she gave birth amidst flooding in Madehpura, Bihar State, India.

By Jorge Caravotta

In the following diary entry, UNICEF India Health Specialist Dr. Jorge Caravotta recounts his experiences during an emergency assessment mission at the Abhayan Chakla camp for people displaced by recent flooding in Bihar State.

BIHAR, India, 9 September 2008 – My mind was spinning with questions as I left Delhi and set off for Bihar: How can a river that is the source of life become the source of such misery and destruction, savagely disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? The people of this state are far too familiar with misery; even without a disaster, 40 per cent of children under five were already malnourished. How were they going to cope now?

The great irony of the “national calamity” – as the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, called the floods – lay in the river’s name. The Kosi River is known as the Sorrow of Bihar. Local legends say Kosi was Himalaya’s daughter but was rejected, and spent her life in a flood of tears.

It got me thinking about mothers, Mother Nature’s wrath and how mothers were going to protect their children in this situation.

Displaced families cope with chaos
We went to see the displaced survivors firsthand. The host population received the survivors with fresh water and some food, but no soap. That was a worry. Disease could spread like wildfire and add to their misery.

A local NGO was managing a medical camp. Hundreds of people lay on the floor, exhausted, indifferent, in a comatose state. In the camp, thousands of people coped with chaos, disrupted dreams, hunger, solid waste and malnutrition.

Among this mass of human need, where to start? I approached the first mother with a newborn I saw. Her name was Sarita Devi. I asked her when she gave birth.

Rooftop childbirth ordeal
Sarita’s mother-in-law Tripula told the astonishing story: “It was four in the afternoon when the water came rushing in. It came into our jhuggi [shanty] and before we knew it, the water had reached waist-level.” Sarita was in her final stage of pregnancy and could not run.

© UNICEF India/2008/Rahi
Flood survivors walk towards a relief camp in Bihar, India.

“Some neighbours helped us, and we escaped to the roof of their house. By then it was 5 p.m., and the water had reached our necks,” Tripula recalled. “There were nine of us on that roof…. The neighbours gave us some rice, and we drank the floodwater. There was nothing else.

“Very soon, Sarita went into labour, and she was in great pain. I assisted with her delivery,” she continued. “We were on that roof with the newborn for eight whole days without any food. Then, finally, the water began to recede and a boat came to rescue us.”

Menace of maternal mortality
There were two doctors with medical supplies in the camp. But all eight deliveries, since the camp was set up on 27 August, took place in the jhuggis by the women themselves.

Maternal mortality is the biggest menace in this country. If a baby’s mother dies during birth, the baby’s chances of surviving are dramatically reduced. Displaced pregnant woman have to deliver in unnatural situations, overcrowded camps, with a lack of privacy, acute lack of hygiene, a lack of safe water – or, like Sarita, on the roof.

We needed to do something. The safe havens we had for them, maternity huts (a tent exclusively for deliveries) are the best strategy to create the most basic conditions for a clean and safe delivery with dignity.

Dealing with unpredictability
I wished we’d had one for Sarita, but with so many mothers over such a huge area, it was overwhelming. At least, she and her baby had survived and had found help. Even in the midst of a massive flood, life goes on, and births take place in the most extraordinary ways.

Maternal mortality in the camps could be averted with round-the-clock availability of skilled birth attendants, referral transport and special food rations for pregnant woman.

Labour is an exercise every mother has to face alone. Nobody can take her place; nobody can push for her. However, we can push for the system to deliver. We cannot change the destiny of people, but we can help displaced women and children cope better with the unpredictability of Mother Nature – especially here in the plains of the mother of all mountains, the Himalayas.



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