Sarita and her newborn son came to the camp after being rescued from the rooftop where she gave birth
Banmakhi, Purnia District, Bihar, 11 September: Almost everyone who has experienced the wrath of River Kosi after it breached its embankment has a story to tell.
Sarita Devi arrived at a relief camp in Purnia District from her small village in Madehpura on 3 September, two weeks after the flood waters washed away her home. She is trying to feed her 8-day old child but the 22-year-old herself is weak and has only a few drops of milk to offer.
“It was four in the afternoon when the water came,” her mother-in-law, Tripula Devi, recounts. “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 we could not run. 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.”
“There were nine of us on that roof – five women, my son [Sarita’s husband] and three children, including one boy. The neighbours gave us some rice and we drank the flood water. There was nothing else. Very soon Sarita went into labour, and she was in great pain. I assisted with her delivery, and the women helped too. We were on that roof with the newborn for eight whole days without any food,” she shakes her head and shudders. “Then finally the water began to recede, and a boat came to rescue us.”
“Look at her,” Tripula Devi says pointing to her daughter-in-law, “All she has eaten since the morning is some chura (rice flakes). She has two more children to look after,” referring to her five-year-old granddaughter and three-year-old grandson.
Sarita’s husband, Naresh Ram joins them. “I am making a jhuggi for us over there,” he says, pointing towards innumerable numbers of shelters made of bamboo and polythene sheets. “Ten of us will be staying together,” he says, looking at the group of people around him that came together from the village. “We just arrived this morning so I haven’t shown her to the doctor here yet, but I will.”
There are 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, said Dr. Jorge Caravotta, a health specialist in child survival with UNICEF.
A lack of nutrition augmented by the stress of displacement has affected the ability of many young mothers to breastfeed as was evident in several relief camps across the affected districts. Some are giving their newborns sugar and water, and even Cerealac, Dr. Caravotta said.
Sixteen temporary Anganwadi Centres are being set up and more are planned to meet the special nutritional needs of children and pregnant and lactating women. In addition, UNICEF has provided mobility support for the deployment to flood-affected districts of 44 doctors and 29 paramedics.
“Overcrowding, humidity and a lack of sanitation are also adding to the physical vulnerabilities of this already fragile population, increasing their – and their babies – susceptibility to illnesses,” he said. “There is a dire need for safe water, food and newborn, neonatal and maternity care for which health, nutrition and proper counselling is urgently required.”
A disease surveillance system has also been set up with UNICEF's support in five of the worst affected districts.
Working with the government, UNICEF is supporting a massive campaign to vaccinate children in relief camps against measles and polio and provide Vitamin A supplementation that will help increase their immunity levels. It is also setting up water storage tanks, organizing chlorination of drinking water and providing training for promotion of hygiene practices.