PORTO NOVO, Benin, 28 December 2010 - Over the past two months, Benin has experienced some of the worst floods of its history. Today, as the water is receding, the long-term consequences of the crisis are starting to emerge.Even in the country's southern districts, where floods are reported almost every year, inhabitants were caught off guard and had to flee their homes. In many rural villages, most of the crops have been ruined.
In the village of Ahome Houmé, on the Ouémé River, floodwaters have destroyed both the crops and the traditional fishing holes. The dry season begins in a few weeks, and the villagers are worried about food scarcity.
To prevent an increase in malnutrition, UNICEF is reinforcing the training of health agents. "We fear the crops will be late, and the consequences could be dreadful," said UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Anne-Sophie Le Dain.
Camps for the displaced
In Ahome Houmé, like many other Beninese villages, the fast-flowing floods also damaged the local water tower, and residents have no other choice but to drink river water.
"We have to fetch water at the river, and it's not clean. My children started suffering from fever and diarrhoea," said Agnes Godonou, a mother of five.
In the hardest-hit villages, the UN refugee agency has built camps to shelter families in urgent need. In Kpoto, a village that was almost completely destroyed by the floods, the agency set up 1,200 tents for the displaced. UNICEF is providing latrines and showers.
The Secretary General of the Catholic non-governmental organization Caritas Benin, Sister Léonie Dochamou, often visits displaced villagers in the camps to ensure that the have access to basic facilities. "Every week, the UN distributes food and non-food items," she said. "It's important, but we can't leave these people in such a situation."
With most people in Benin now safe from the immediate threat of floods, the UN is planning a long-term response to the crisis.
"Most of the displaced persons don't want to go back to their villages, where it's not safe to live anymore," says Sister Léonie. "Our recovery strategy must take that into consideration. We can't rebuild the villages near the river or in floodable zones. We are thinking of giving people the material to rebuild their houses on new pieces of land, where floods won't occur every year.
"To avoid outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera or diarrhoea during this critical period, UNICEF is supporting a massive information campaign on water and sanitation. Carried by 22 local radio stations and 1,000 public criers, the campaign's messages target the most remote villages in the flood zone.
UNICEF is also raising hygiene awareness in schools located in flood-affected areas by promoting basic practices such as handwashing with soap.