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UNICEF rushes emergency supplies to flooded regions in India's Orissa State

UNICEF Image: India, flood
© UNICEF India/2008/ Sen
Villagers throughout Orissa have been marooned by the floodwaters from the Mahanadi River. Many areas are now reachable only by boat.

By Prosun Sen  

CUTTACK, India, 25 September 2008 – It is 7:30 on Sunday morning at the office of the District Emergency Officer in Cuttack in the state of Orissa, where floodwaters have affected 17 districts. The office is swamped with people, ringing phones and the crackle of walkie-talkies.

The arriving UNICEF rapid assessment team is taken aback by the scene that greets them here. Updates on marooned villages, rising water levels and relief camps awaiting critical supplies are pouring in, much like the rampaging Mahanadi River.

Nearly 3,500 villages have been affected, 21 lives have been lost and more than 250,000 people are now marooned. Large parts of coastal Orissa were inundated after the gates of Hirakud Dam were opened following extremely heavy rain.

Major portions of the delta region are also engulfed as a result of several breaches in the river banks, further compounding the misery of thousands of people who are spending sleepless nights on embankments, in fear of the rising water.

'How can we live like this?'

As the UNICEF team moves into Kanthapada, one of the badly hit blocks of Cuttack, the situation appears grim. There have been five breaches in the banks of the two tributaries surrounding this block, and the entire population is at risk. An estimately 70,000 out of 80,000 people are severely affected.

In Dhanmandal Village, the inhabitants have been living on a narrow embankment surrounded by water for the past four days.

“My home was swept away in the middle of the night. I have two little children. The little one has an upset stomach. I don’t know what to do, where to go – how can we live like this?” said Amulya, a dairy farmer.

Water and sanitation problems

People in Dhanmandal flock together with their cattle under makeshift tents of plastic sheets supported by bamboo poles. Some 900 residents of the village have no cooking gas or kerosene and little food for themselves or their livestock. There is no possibility of setting up a free kitchen on the flood-swept embankment.

“All my food grain for the year has been washed away,” said Revathi, an 80-year-old widow.

Access to safe drinking water is a major problem, as is open defecation, which has the potential to trigger an epidemic.

UNICEF’s pre-positioned supplies have been put to immediate use in an effort to address the water and sanitation problems. These supplies include tarpaulins for shelter, oral rehydration salts to prevent diarrhoeal dehydration, hygiene kits, blankets and water tanks. 

Access made difficult

“The majority of the people across the district are living on river embankments, many of which are so difficult to reach that even motor boats cannot get to them. We are monitoring the situation and will reach these people as soon as access is possible,” says Block Development Officer D.P. Dash.

The Government of Orissa responded quickly as the mobile medical units of the Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority were swung into action. More than 260,000 people have been evacuated, and food supplies are being air dropped. But the sheer magnitude of the disaster makes getting supplies to people problematic.

Even as the authorities act with support from UNICEF and other partners to provide relief to the millions affected, the possibility of deepening crisis looms. The weather forecast is predicting more rain.



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