Subhagi Devi escaped the floods by wading through waist-high waters with her baby, East Champaran, Bihar.
By Robin Giri
East Champaran, Bihar, 8 August 2007 – Three days after giving birth to her son, 30-year-old Subhagi Devi had to make a midnight escape from the floods that submerged her village in East Champaran, Bihar. “I was scared all the time,” she says, “sometimes I thought I would lose my footing, but I was more scared for my baby.” Her 20-year-old neighbour Parmila Devi - in the last stages of her pregnancy - was lucky to be rescued by boat. Parmila gave birth three days later.
Desperately poor even at the best of times, health indicators for the women and children of Bihar are abysmally low, with only 34.1 per cent of pregnant women receiving any form of ante-natal care compared to 72.9 nationally. Approximately 56 per cent of children under five are malnourished, and 42 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Oblivious to the melee around them, the mothers stare vacantly – drained by the emotional nightmare of the past few days, and the challenges ahead. The floods that ravaged northern Bihar this year have been overwhelming in magnitude and severity compared to the previous years. This particular embankment has been home to the 20,000 inhabitants of Madhubani and Bardaha villages for the past three weeks.
“The situation is still critical for many, and the relief efforts must be stepped up and sustained, if all the people are to benefit from the relief operations,” says Marzio Babille, UNICEF’s chief of health in India. According to authorities, 6000 villages remain submerged and more than 100,000 people are cut off because roads are still inundated or have been washed away.
Emergency supplies, medical care and human resources
To combat the threat from malnutrition and hunger to women and children, UNICEF has rushed 100,000 iron and folic tablets for nursing mothers and pregnant women and 200,000 kilogram’s of fortified biscuits for the most affected 350,000 children under five, in 19 districts. Temporary medical camps, supported by UNICEF, have been set up among some of the most affected populations to provide basic medical care. An additional 50 mobile health units – with 2 doctors each – have also been deployed to the districts.
One of the many doctors volunteering to provide desperately needed medical care to women and children, East Champaran, Bihar.
These mobile units will provide desperately needed clinical treatment; conduct a mass immunisation campaign to protect children from measles; and provide Vitamin A supplements to boost their immunity. “These mobile medical teams will fill in the gaps wherever possible, and provide emergency medical care,” says Job Zachariah, UNICEF’s Officer in Charge in Bihar, who along with the Deputy Chief Minister, Sushil Kumar Modi, flagged off the mobile medical teams.
Even before the onset of the crisis, UNICEF’s pre-positioned emergency supplies in 1000 villages across seven districts were distributed through the network of NGO partners in the districts. These included 5,000 plastic sheets for tents, 130,000 sachets of oral rehydration salts (ORS), thousands of water purification tablets, temporary toilet sets, family hygiene kits, delivery kits, and other relief materials.
An additional 20,000 tarpaulin sheets, 1.5 million water purification tablets, 25,000 kilogram’s of bleaching powder, and 200,000 sachets of ORS are now being sent to the 19 most affected districts.
UNICEF is providing more than 5,000 units of LifeStraw® personal water purifiers, each with the capacity to purify 700 litres of water, and also supporting the construction of temporary community latrines for males and females.
Staff members from the Bihar office as well as UNICEF’s country office in New Delhi are in field in the field coordinating the relief efforts of the government of Bihar, and working to ensure that the most vulnerable populations, particularly children and women, receive their share of relief items.
To date, more than half a million people in 5000 villages across 20 districts of Bihar have benefited from UNICEF support. The next challenge is to help them begin the process of rebuilding, and returning to some form of a normal life.