UNHCR airlifts tents as UNICEF focuses on safe water for flood victims in Benin
COTONOU, Benin, 28 October 2010 - In one of the first large-scale responses to a crisis that seemingly hasn't yet registered with much of the world, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has airlifted thousands of tents for people displaced by the devastating floods in Benin.
The first flight in the emergency airlift brought 1,500 tents into Cotonou, Benin's largest city. The tents will provide urgently needed shelter for victims of the floods, which were triggered by heavy rains. They will be sent to parts of Benin where floodwaters are receding, making it possible for the tents to be erected.
"With more than 3,000 tents, some 15,000 people will get decent temporary shelter close to their flood-ravaged homes. This will allow them to start repairs while they wait for the national rehabilitation effort to start," said UNHCR Representative in Benin Angèle Dikongué-Atangana. "As a priority, the first to receive tents will be those who have been left homeless."
Floodwaters cause destruction
The country has not suffered such damage from flooding in half a century.
"It was all very sudden," said Jude Narcisse Edegan, chief of the village of Kpoto in eastern Benin. "The water levels started getting higher and higher. It started to invade our houses. We yelled and told the population to evacuate towards the school and the church.... We had to leave everything behind and take our children to safety."
Constance Dagnihoun was sleeping in bed near her five children when she woke up and saw the water rising.
"I stormed out of my house and took my children with me. I saw the other villagers running around and fleeing to shelter," she said. At dawn, she saw that floodwaters had destroyed her house and more than 200 others in the village, leaving no choice for the villagers but to evacuate.
'We have to find a solution'
Ms. Dagnihoun eventually took shelter in a nearby informal camp. She now shares a small tent with her children and four other mothers. "It's very small for my family in here, and it's not clean either," she said. "Our children are getting more and more sick every day. We have to find a solution and build a new home."
More than 1.5 million people like Ms. Dagnihoun have been affected by the recent floods in Benin and across West Africa. Almost 400 have been killed.
The figures are highest in Benin. Two-thirds of the country was hard hit by the floods. As a result, 46 people died and 180,000 were displaced. In all, the floods have affected more than 680,000 Beninese. Some of the displaced have taken shelter with relatives, while others have had to build their own informal, temporary housing.
Reaching the most vulnerable
To respond to this crisis, UNICEF and its UN partners have set up an emergency plan for reaching communities in the most urgent need.
"The situation is critical," said Francois Bellet, UNICEF Regional Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist. "We're here to ensure that children are being looked after and that we avoid major outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. The situation will be even more critical when people try and get back to their villages."
To help prevent waterborne diseases, UNICEF has taken the lead on water and sanitation. In Cotonou, for example, the organization provided fuel allowing firefighters to distribute thousands of litres of safe, drinkable water. UNICEF has also provided thousands of water tanks and hygiene kits. In Athieme village, western Benin, UNICEF partnered with the Red Cross on the distribution of 1.35 million water-purification tablets, as well as soap and mosquito nets.
Among those affected by the floods in Benin, children are the most vulnerable. Almost 280 schools have been destroyed, and thousands of others are being used as shelters for displaced families. In some places, the government had to cancel the first day of school and will keep on postponing it until the situation improves.
To help children keep up with their education, UNICEF has prepared school kits for distribution to affected students during the back-to-school period. Still, some 115,000 children still cannot attend school. To meet the basic needs of these children and others affected by the floods, UNICEF has issued an urgent funding appeal for $8.7 million.
The coming weeks will be critical to ensure that the situation does not get worse.