A day in the life of Milika and Sandrine - UNICEF Pacific's WASH Officers
Delivering life-saving water, sanitation and hygiene supplies to families and children
Milika – the first face to board first responders’ ship
“In December 2020, the whole world celebrated Christmas and were enjoying the festive season. But in Fiji, it was another story. Here, we were trying to rebuild after a Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Yasa hit the small Pacific island nation and destroyed homes, schools and livelihoods of the people.”
Milika Nabulivula, WASH Officer, joined UNICEF in 2018 and since then hopped onto the first responders’ team for six natural disasters that hit the Pacific.
“My own brother in law’s home in Bua, Vanua Levu, was badly damaged during Tropical Cyclone Yasa. My family’s source of income – our small farm and livestock were all destroyed in just what felt like a blink of an eye.”
While her family was trying to recover from the disastrous effects of the cyclone, Milika was already on boats and travelling by foot to the most remote areas, to deliver lifesaving WASH supplies.
Now, two years later, she is again in the response team in Tonga supporting children and families build back their communities after the ferocious volcanic eruption and tsunami hit the Kingdom.
The eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano caused the destruction of essential WASH facilities and interruption of services to families, schools, and health care facilities. This further exposed people to the risk of illness from drinking unsafe water, open defecation, and from not being able to regularly wash their hands with soap and water.
Communication lines had also been interrupted, making it difficult to get information on the extent of the damage.
“Due to COVID-19 border closures and communication cut-off, we were on stand-by to provide response support to the Government and its partners on the ground to reach children and families with the support they urgently needed.”
Milika sent messages to her WASH sector contacts in Tonga every day for three weeks to know what the situation was on the ground.
“I knew that my messages were not going through – but I still had hope and kept sending it every day, waiting for a response.”
Milika, together with others in the UNICEF response team, waited for about a month before they were able to enter Tonga and provide on the ground support to families and communities.
“We were in quarantine for three weeks, and then faced another two-week lock down. As soon as we were able to move around and provide support, I came in close contact with a person with COVID-19 and had to go in isolation for 10 days.”
Milika was in Tonga for four months before she came back to her family and is now back in Tonga to ensure that continuous WASH support is still being provided in the country.
“Fieldwork is my home – I feel honoured and content to be part of any emergency response team. At the end of the day, I know that my work is making an impact, making a difference, in the lives of people, especially the children.”
She adds that no matter how disastrous a cyclone, or how scary a volcano has been – when she goes to the communities, it melts her heart to see children still smiling, waving and being happy with what they have.
Milika highlights that from her experience of supporting with emergency responses, she can assure that it is certainly not a ‘one-man army’ work.
“Responding to emergencies cannot be done alone. Government agencies, civil society organisations, communities, schools, families, and UN agencies like UNICEF, need to work together to ensure that everyone is safe and protected, as well as able to build their lives back – it really does take a village!”
Milika won’t think for a second before she again boards the first responder’s ship come another emergency.
The real heroes are the communities we serve
It was after midnight when Sandrine Benjamin, UNICEF WASH Officer, together with a team from the Vanuatu Department of Water Resources, boarded the inter-island ship for the four-hour trip to remote, hard-to-reach West Coast, Santo Island.
They had landed at Pekoa Airport earlier that day, witnessing the devastation from the air, as the pilot negotiated the landing of one of the first aircrafts after the severe category 5 Cyclone Harold hit the northern part of Vanuatu two years ago.
“When we got to the beach, it was still dark, so we unpacked our sleeping bags to sleep under the stars and wait for daybreak,” said Sandrine.
“The young people in the community arrived and made a fire to help keep us warm. Here we were thinking we would be there to help them, but here they were helping us.”
At 6am, families in the community brought roasted taro and island cabbage cooked in bamboos that the team shared together with rations of tinned food they had brought.
Discarding the remains of a hurriedly finished meal, the five-person team, now augmented by two community members, the Chair of the Community Disaster Committee, and a young woman, hiked the steep terrain up the hill.
“Due to the huge amount of rain, landslides damaged hillsides and gardens, making already impassable roads with steep drops even more dangerous. At some point, I remembered that we had to crawl on hands and knees for some time, then we were given walking sticks to navigate the terrain.”
The mission was to reach the village of Tanokovu before nightfall. The team just made it.
“It was dark when we got to the first village where the community leader invited us to the community hall, told fascinating stories, and shared experiences from the cyclone.”
Due to cooler mountain temperatures, the team slept in the community hall with a fire lit in the centre, and the embers kept them warm until dawn.
In the morning, the team was awakened to a breakfast of roasted taro, bush ferns cooked in bamboos and rations. Then, the real work started with assessments of the community water system, quick fixes, and hygiene promotion activities.
“Sharing key messages about boiling drinking water within the first few days is critical to saving lives. We cannot dwell on what happened, but we must look at the resources the community has and work with them to re-build lives,” said Sandrine.
The team was received with the same eagerness and hospitality at Tanokovu, the second village on the steep uphill trek, as well as Valapei, the last village at the foot of the Santo Peak located at 900 metres above sea level.
“When we went to the community, the first people I saw were children collecting water,” said Sandrine.
“It’s motivating to see their smiles, hear their giggles and laughter. The children don’t let the situation affect them and make them lose hope. Their smiles showed how resilient they were.”
Perched at the foot of the Santo Peak, which is one of three highest mountain peaks in Vanuatu, it was mere days for the children and people of Valapei village after their community took a battering from the first category 5 cyclone experienced in their lifetime. Nestled atop a plateau surrounded by mountains, they had some protection from the winds. The immense amount of rain had brought landslides that their homes luckily were saved from.
“Being a humanitarian worker is more than just responding to people’s needs after a disaster. I’m humbled by the responsibility that comes with it,” said Sandrine.
“Being at the forefront and being able to help others in their time of need is a privilege – not just to help people – but I get to hear their amazing stories, and to learn from them.”
For Sandrine, while her wellbeing is paramount, for her to get out there and to help to make a difference in the life of one child and learning from the community is where she gets her fulfilment.
“I salute, honor and celebrate community members we are privileged to serve. They are the first responders. They are the true heroes.”
On 6 April 2020, Category 5 Cyclone Harold made a direct hit on West Coast Santo, destroying over 600 homes, badly damaging infrastructure, and wiping out the agricultural and productive sector livelihoods of over 2,590 people. UNICEF, through its humanitarian workers like Sandrine, has been working through the national cluster system to provide support to communities through hygiene promotion, quick fixes, and then to more long-term rehabilitation of water systems.