Life on the embankment
Orissa battles the fury of floods
Cuttack, Orissa, 21 September 2008: It is 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning and the UNICEF Rapid Assessment team is taken aback by the scene that greets them at the office of the District Emergency Officer in Cuttack – a virtual battlefield, swamped with people, ringing phones and the crackle of walkie-talkies. Updates on marooned villages, rising water levels and relief camps awaiting critical supplies are gushing in, much like the rampaging Mahanadi river and its tributaries that have taken into their grip over two million people. With nearly 3500 villages across 17 districts being affected, 21 human lives have been lost and more than 250,000 people are marooned and battling to stay alive.
Large parts of coastal Orissa were inundated after the sluice gates of Hirakud Dam on the Mahanadi river were opened, following extremely heavy rain in the catchment area. Apart from this, major portions of the deltaic region are 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, fearing the rising water.
Scene on the ground
As the UNICEF team moves into Kanthapada, one of the badly hit blocks of Cuttack, the situation is truly grim. Of an estimated population of eighty thousand, 70,000 are severely affected. There have been five breaches in the banks of the two tributaries surrounding this block and the entire population is at risk. The inhabitants of Dhanmandal village in this block are 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?” says anguished Amulya, a dairy farmer. His cry is the collective voice of his fellow villagers.
Children, women and men flock together with cattle under make-shift tents of plastic sheets supported by bamboo poles. Some 900 residents of the village are living precariously with no cooking gas or kerosene and little food for themselves or their cattle. Eighty-year old widower Revathi does not know what she will do even if she survives the flood. “All my foodgrain for the year has been washed away”, she laments.
The mobile medical units of the Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA) have swung into action but there is no possibility of setting up a free kitchen on the flood-swept embankment. Access to safe drinking water is a major problem, as is open defecation, which has the potential of triggering an epidemic.
Children sharing a frugal meal in their embankment shelter
The Government of Orissa has taken quick steps to combat the situation. The Rapid Action Force has been pressed into service; 536 boats have been deployed, over 260,000 people have been evacuated and food supplies are being air dropped with the support of Indian Air Force helicopters. Twenty-four hour Emergency Control Rooms have been set up and inter-agency groups comprising UN and other international agencies are providing the much-needed support. The response is quick but the sheer magnitude of the disaster is gigantic.
“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 D. P. Dash.
UNICEF’s pre-positioned supplies available in the vulnerable districts and blocks have been put to immediate use. These include 1.3 million ORS sachets, 1.1 million Halazone tablets, 62,000 H2S vials, 200 water tanks (1500 litres capacity), 1000 Hygiene kits, and 300 drums of Calcium Hypochlorite. Additionally, shelter material including 8,900 tarpaulins and 15,000 blankets are pre-positioned with Indian Red Cross under a strategic partnership for storage and distribution to affected areas.
Even as the State Government swings into action with the support of partners to provide rescue and relief to the millions affected, the possibility of deepening crisis looms large with news of low pressure formation in the Bay of Bengal which could trigger fresh rains.
Dash sums up the frustration of relief work in the face of nature’s fury, “The pressure of reaching essential supplies to the affected people is unabated. Despite all efforts, supplies are not matching the scale of the disaster. Added to this is the problem of accessing marooned areas and the complete breakdown of communication lines in many cases. We are working round-the-clock, but if things get worse we do not know how much longer we can sustain.”