UNDP, UN Volunteers making a difference - Assam cyclone

by Richard Nyberg
Answering an urgent request from the Assam Relief Commissioner, a team of UN Volunteers dispatched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) responded rapidly to assess damage after a powerful cyclone killed at least 36 people and left thousands homeless in India's north-eastern region.

Winds measuring 200 kilometres per hour destroyed communications and power networks and left six villages in the Mankachar Block in virtual shambles. Some 1,500 people were injured, 150 seriously. The cyclone completely destroyed 1,350 houses, four schools and a bridge serving the 4,900 people living in the area.

Two of the national UN Volunteers, Sarat Das and Ranjit Deka, were in Assam when the storm hit. They arrived on the scene on 24 April, followed by UNV doctors Prakash Mall and Bikshit Guria, who travelled from Bhubanesware, Orissa.

"Initially I, with Dr. Guria, helped the local doctors in providing treatment to the patients in the camps that had been already established," said Dr. Mall. "Subsequently we went to two inaccessible villages -- Pottangitola and Toppara -- to provide medical aid." Their suggestion to shift the patients from temporary camps to an Auditorium Hall in Hatsingmari was accepted and the patients were then treated there.

Most patients suffered impact injuries as a result of "being thrown or dragged from one place to another", said Dr. Mall. He added that the injuries ranged from simple bruises, cuts to broken bones. The two doctors dressed countless wounds, administered antibiotics to prevent infection and splinted broken limbs.

According to the team, more than 80 percent of the total injured persons were able to get back to their normal lives within two weeks after the cyclone because of the support and advice offered by the UNV doctors to local counterparts.

"The sufferings of the people filled us with compassion and vigor to help them as much as we could," said Dr. Guria. "Feelings were as if the victims were our own near and dear ones."

For 12 days, Mr. Das and Mr. Deka helped shift the injured patients to ambulances and spray bleaching powder in and around the temporary camps set up for the villagers to ensure sanitation. They also helped in the distribution of relief materials to the people.

Together with the two UNV doctors, Mr. Das and Mr. Deka set up a control room in the village of Hatsingimari and coordinated field relief operations. Two other national UN Volunteers, Rachna Yadav and Mr. Sashikant Panchgalle, coordinated and monitored relief activities at the state capital, Guwahati.

"Our greatest contribution was to lend maximum support and service to the people and the administration through our voluntary work," said Mr. Das, an IT specialist with experience in disaster mitigation. "During any crisis, one of the biggest problems is to obtain accurate information, prioritize work and mobilize scarce resources as per need. We helped the administration in taking informed decisions with our special skills in information collection and processing." The local people, he noted, considered the UN Volunteers to be "selfless", and the Administration "trusted our motives and actions".

"Through the daily review meeting we were able to bring all the line departments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UNDP and the Administration under one roof, " added Dr. Mall.

It was a combined effort by large numbers of people. Local NGOs with the support of the district administration to clean polluted ponds and clear the communities of debris. There is still much work to be done by local civil society, as the homeless need shelter and those whose livelihoods were jeopardized - such as fisherman - need to find work

UNV India has already gained significant experience working with disasters, starting with the Orissa's Super Cyclone in 1999. Its expertise is increasingly in demand.

"The National UN Volunteer Programme has been a critical force in implementing the Disaster Management Programme of UNDP," said Dennis Lazarus, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in India. "The volunteer spirit links communities and strengthens partnerships."

UNV Programme Officer Bianca Rita Tonetti agrees. "The spirit of volunteerism and high sense of commitment to the reduction of communities' vulnerability to natural hazards have driven the prompt and effective intervention of the UN Volunteers in this north-eastern area of the subcontinent," she said. "In emergency phases as well as under normal circumstances, the UNV India team has demonstrated that serving as a volunteer is not a job, but a mission."