A UNICEF official supervises water storage tanks being loaded onto a truck. Drinking water is one of the key needs of victims of the tsunamic tragedy in southern India.
This year’s Christmas break came to a crashing halt for Dr. Prakash Gurnani, UNICEF’s health officer in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.
As news began to pour in about the tidal wave havoc in southern India, he quickly headed off to UNICEF’s office in downtown Chennai. The phone began to ring, and Dr. Gurnani found himself in the middle of a crisis.
But he has been there before, coordinating UNICEF’s health efforts when an earthquake rocked the state of Gujarat in 2001.
Years of professional experience told Dr. Gurnani that it would be critical in the early days to ensure that people had clean water to drink, and some basic provisions such as quilts and light clothes. Hospitals would also need emergency supplies, and relief camps would need cooking utensils. “Our job now is to stop an outbreak of disease in the relief camps,” said Dr. Gurnani. That’s when he called the UNICEF Delhi office, and supply section, for support.
Kalesh Kumar, UNICEF’s supply officer, and his team in Delhi had been working for some time to have emergency supplies in place before they’re needed - especially supplies that can ensure a safe supply of water. Using Long-Term Agreement modality with various contractors, UNICEF is poised to air-lift large quantities of oral rehydration solution (ORS) packets, two million halazone tablets and five million chlorine tablets. In Tamil Nadu itself, UNICEF’s supply officer have scoured the local market to purchase large volume water tanks to send to some of 70 relief camps set up across the coastal area. Trucks carrying those badly-needed water tanks began moving out today to the most badly affected districts.
“Ensuring that families who have moved into relief camps get clear drinking water is a top priority,” said Mr. Kumar, UNICEF’s supply officer in Delhi. “That means getting water tanks into those areas as quickly as possible, and supply purification tablets as well as ORS. That will save more lives from being lost in this disaster, which is our number one job right now.”
Water storage tanks being inspected
UNICEF’s staff is also fanning out across the badly hit districts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, including several people who were called away from their hotel rooms and Christmas holidays.
Lizette Burgers, the Chief of Water and Environmental Sanitation who recently joined UNICEF India, was visiting Tamil Nadu with her family for the first time. But it was not to be the holiday she was expecting.
“Boxing Day morning, I was with my family driving towards Chennai from Bangalore on the way to the beautiful coastal town of Pondicherry. The morning looked promising and bright after a night of Christmas celebrations. Chennai was more than six hours away when something began to strike me. There was something unusual in the way everything and everyone looked. I switched on the car radio and there it was - the place I was heading to had several thousand people dead and more deaths being reported every hour and every minute.
When we arrived in Chennai we found our hotel flooded, some of the children staying there had been drowned and the staff seemed dazed, as though the magnitude of the situation had not yet set in. I checked my family into their room and left immediately to visit the fishing villages and assess the situation.
What I heard again and again was the way the water had quietly crept up upon families. People told me that the water slowly, slowly rose until they found themselves stranded on rooftops.
Ambo a fisherman told me that he managed to get his mother and grandmother to the roof and they stopped themselves being swept away by clinging to the ventilator. Then he realized that his 4 year old daughter was playing with neighbours and she was no where to be found. They were convinced she was dead until his sister found her under water still alive. They dragged her to the road which miraculously still had cars and got her to the local hospital. When I left him she was still in hospital but stable.
I returned to the hotel at midnight only to be told to leave again a few hours later as waters were rising again. Since then, I have been on the road talking to people and trying to see what the need is. Everywhere, I see houses completely swept away, cars and scooters piled up.
The area worst affected is the strip of fishing villages where people live in on the edge of poverty. I have talked to mothers who are desperately searching for their children but cannot afford a bus ticket to visit nearby villages to look for them There is no doubt that we will need to focus on water and hygiene and I have seen many children who seem traumatized. I met a family where the mother and son had sat shaking since the water hit.
With such devastation, UNICEF has so much to contribute and do. I know that it will be some time before I am back to my job in Delhi, but for now, my job is to be here to help our state office with the emergency response, and to do all that we can to save lives.”