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UNICEF provides supplies for cyclone-affected West Bengal

© UNICEF/2009/Gulati
A father and daughter move what is left of their belongings to a safer place.

By Anil Gulati

KOLKATA, India, 1 June 2009 – Madhumita, age 10, loves school and hopes to one day become a teacher. But for now, her dreams have been put on hold by Cyclone Aila, which hit her delta village in West Bengal earlier this week, destroying her textbooks and shutting down her school.

After the cyclone, Madhumita's parents collected the little that remained of their household effects and moved the family of nine to a nearby mud embankment in Gosaba, in the Sunderbans delta. Still, 14 of the delta's 37 islands remain inaccessible. To date, an estimated 5.1 million people in the state have been affected.

"This is unimaginable. I have not seen such destruction like this in my life," said Kripa Sindhu Pradhan, an older man from Madhumita's village. "We have seen storms, cyclones and floods and have learned to fight with them, but this time the destruction is enormous. Embankments that used to protect us from the high tide water broke down, and water just gushed in."

An ongoing crisis

"We had to travel by boat and cycle van to reach our areas of work.  Now everything is washed away and we will have to start all over again," said Sister Jessya, a volunteer with Palli Unnayan Samiti, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working in the district.

© UNICEF/2009/Gulati
A girl collects leftover household goods from her semi-submerged home while her parents watch.

With the embankments destroyed, the water comes and goes with the high and low tides. Rajesh, an NGO volunteer in the area lost his home in the storm and worries that the worst has yet to come.

"The monsoon is around the corner. What will happen then?" he asked.

"We saw carcasses of cattle in the water and dead fish," said UNICEF's Emergency Officer in West Bengal Parnasri Ray Choudhury. "This will make the area prone to waterborne diseases after the water recedes."

Reaching out

A Rapid Assessment Team from UNICEF's West Bengal office visited the Gosaba islands by boat and met many affected women and children. But reaching out to these inaccessible villages remains a challenge. Schools that survived the storm -  like Madhumita's - are currently being used as shelters. Safe drinking water, food and shelter are urgently needed. 

The Government of West Bengal has moved in tarpaulins, water pouches and packets of dry food for those affected by the cyclone. The Indian National Disaster Response force is helping with search and rescue in the affected areas. UNICEF, through its partners, Ramakrishna Mission Lokshiksha Parishad and 12 cluster organizations, is moving in pre-positioned emergency supplies that include 2,000 water jerry cans, 800,000 water purification tablets, 3,134 family hygiene kits and 90,000 packets of oral rehydration salt.

"We saw village after village under water, children and their parents on broken embankments trying to salvage whatever was left of their homes and belongings," said UNICEF's Programme Communication Specialist Nasir Ateeq, who was part of UNICEF's rapid assessment team. "People were trying to save their belongings by using home-built banana rafts."



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