India: Orissa's people marooned but not forsaken

Originally published
by Shabreen Nabeel, of the Indian Red Cross, in Orissa
Mukhti and Sibo blissfully splash about in the floodwaters, oblivious of the worries of their 47-year-old father, Ganjam. The hardships his family faces, like those of villagers across 21 districts if India's eastern state of Orissa, appear insurmountable.

More than two weeks of incessant rains and the resultant flooding has affected a population of 3.25 million, damaged over a 100,000 houses; and swept away crops from 4.3 million hectares of agricultural land. As many as 1,000 homes have been completely washed away.

The affected people were dependent on outside aid, which was flown into Bhubaneswar and then delivered by boats. Red Cross volunteers were at the forefront of the rescue and relief effort as they painstakingly covered the eastern state, which is home to some 35 million people.

Trained volunteers reached thousands of marooned people through an elaborate search and rescue operation, shifting them out of harm's way to the safety of the Red Cross cyclone shelters.

Leading them on was the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) Secretary General, Dr.Vimala Ramalingam, joining the relief distribution on a boat in one of the worst affected areas - the Kanas block in Puri district.

"We know that some areas are still inaccessible as they have been cut off by flood waters, but the challenge lies in providing them the basic necessities for survival," said Dr. Ramalingam.

For many, marooned on higher ground that they managed to reach with the water surging around them, the tarpaulins provided by IRCS proved to be a boon. "Oh! Jaganatha, bless them for providing my family with a home" cried one of them, Nayak, overwhelmed to receive the disaster relief material.

Trained volunteers, supported by the American Red Cross and the German Red Cross, helped distribute relief material, comprising food aid, candles and matches, clothing, tarpaulins, water purification tablets, oral re-hydration salts and cooking equipment.

Though help is arriving, it is not enough and the lack of access to various areas has aggravated the shortage of clean drinking water, which has resulted in the affected population being forced to drink contaminated water. This in turn has led to a rise in cases of waterborne diseases.

Supporting the efforts of the Government to tackle the health hazard, the Orissa state branch of the IRCS has distributed water purification tablets, sachets of oral re-hydration salts and medicines to treat gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, common cold and fever.

The Red Cross has also been providing much-needed psychological counselling. Among those being reached by this programme are seven-year old Kanish who has been living in a school that serves as a relief camp with his extended family of uncle's aunts and cousins.

He keeps asking his mother to go home, but there is no home to go to, as it is under water. His mother is grateful to the disaster mental health team of the Indian Red Cross that is providing psychosocial support to 400 children in the village of Jaganathapatna, in Puri district.

Not only do they keep the children occupied for part of the day, they also provide them with milk and porridge to the children twice a day.

The flood relief operation was characterised by a high degree of cooperation among the humanitarian agencies, meaning there was little duplication of work. The Red Cross was able to distribute excess water purification tablets to other agencies working in various parts of the flood-affected state, thus ensuring that as many people as possible benefited. In addition, relief packets provided by the Orissa State Red Cross branch in Kanas and elsewhere included food provided by the Government.

As the assessment team returns from the flood-affected area with more information on the current scenario, it is clear that much more needs to done. With several parts of India chronically vulnerable to flooding, the work of the Indian Red Cross has made a discernable difference.