UNICEF: Cyclones in Orissa

Monday, 13 December 1999: Six weeks after two massive storms swept over the Indian state of Orissa, UNICEF is hard at work providing relief and restoration assistance for the millions of people affected. The agency has developed a comprehensive plan to assist the children of Orissa and their families. The UNICEF program will involve more than US $20 million.

During an 11-day span in late October 1999, the Indian state of Orissa was devastated by two powerful cyclones affecting more than 18,000 villages. The two storms, and the flash floods that followed, killed at least 10,000 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, and wiped out crops along the 140-kilometer stretch of the coast. Continuing heavy rains along with gusty winds hampered relief efforts for days. Flooding was enormous, as muddy waters poured over roads, fields, villages and towns. Families were separated and the world turned upside down.

The Immediate UNICEF Response

The initial assessment after the first cyclone led to requests for emergency supplies of food, shelter, emergency medical items, water purification tablets and bleaching powder. UNICEF delivered all of these. But while these supplies were still en route, the second cyclone hit -- with devastating results. UNICEF immediately expanded its relief operation and its office in Orissa became the centre of relief operations for all UN agencies.

UNICEF has been focusing on providing emergency relief to the most vulnerable people -- children and women -- particularly those from the poorer communities whose lives have been severely affected by the "super cyclone" that caused damage in 12 out of 30 districts in the state and that left social services in disarray.

UNICEF, as part of a wider United Nations relief effort, has been supporting the Government of India with emergency relief and rescue operations; the restoration of basic social services such as clean water and proper sanitation; and -- in the longer term -- the rehabilitation of whole communities and the basic health, educational and agricultural institutions that the people of Orissa will rely on for their full recovery.

The UNICEF response is taking place in three phases:

The immediate emergency relief phase, which will run from now until January 2000
A mid-term rehabilitation phase from January 2000 to June 2000
A longer-term reconstruction phase that will begin in July 2000 and reach into 2002.

The Latest Activities

I - Current situation

The casualties:

After the cyclone of 18 October and the super cyclone of 29 October hit Orissa, 14 districts out of 30 were identified as particularly devastated. Over 18,000 villages and nearly 15 million people are estimated to have been affected, including 3.3 million children.

The official death toll has reached 10,000, but the estimated number is 30,000 deaths. In one local area alone (Ersama), the volunteer co-ordinator told UNICEF that they had cremated some 8,000 bodies. Because many persons are still unaccounted for, comprehensive assessments have yet to be completed. Moreover, communications have yet to be restored in some of the affected areas.

2. The most vulnerable children:

Many children may have lost one or both their parents and several might be separated from their families. Others may be affected by displacement due to the devastation caused by the cyclone. In Ersama, some 200 orphans have already been identified. Several orphanages and special schools for disabled children were damaged. Because children in the affected areas are not currently in school, because many of them have lost their families or because their families have lost their income, the risk of children being exploited in labour or prostitution is very high.

Children who saw their parents and siblings swept away during the storm are shocked. Some do not speak, some do not react to any stimuli or attention. Many of the cyclone victims are found to be suffering from acute depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. According to the head of the Psychiatry Department of the local Medical College, "the culture and tradition in the coastal belt of the state are based on an emotional and spiritual ethos. For many the cyclone was a punishment for the rise of sin in this world."

3) Villages without houses:

Dwellings in most of the affected villages were predominantly makeshift huts, which are almost completely destroyed. Most public structures were severely damaged. The cyclone is estimated to have damaged 3 million homes, of which 1.5 million were completely destroyed. In the seven worst affected districts, over 70% of the shelters have been washed away. It is estimated that 7.5 million people are homeless. Large sections of the population require shelter for periods ranging from three months to one year before they can return to houses that can withstand future ravages of such natural calamities. People can not even find thatching materials for their mud-houses.

4) Children without schools:

Some 11,000 schools are either significantly damaged or completely destroyed and those still standing are being used as temporary shelters. It is estimated that some 270,000 students between the age of 6 and 14 are out of school. School materials are required to replace those lost during the flooding. Schools and colleges in all affected areas have been closed. With several of the school buildings serving as temporary shelters and relief camps, the period for which children will not be able to resume their educational activity may be prolonged. Most student books and teaching aids were lost in the storm. About 3 million students are concerned.

5) Children without early childhood development centres:

In the 14 affected districts, early childhood care centres were available in some 7,000 villages. Since most of these centres were built in temporary hut-like structures, many were destroyed. It is estimated that at least 2,200 centres require tarpaulin sheets immediately and will have to be re-built to allow some early childhood care activities to resume.

6) People without water:

Due to large-scale inundation, there has been widespread contamination of drinking water sources. In the Cuttack district alone, some 4.000 wells and bore well pumps were rendered unworkable.

7) Farmers and workers without a job:

The State of Orissa already had some of the poorest indicators in human development in India. The devastation brought by the cyclone could set these indicators back 40 or 50 years. The economy has been shattered beyond imagination. Not only were crops destroyed, but plantations were also seriously damaged. For instance, only 20% of the coconut trees (an important source of income in Orissa) have survived. It will take seven years to grow new trees. The tidal wave drenched the soil with salty water. Due to the salination, some crops might disappear from Orissa altogether.
Most artisans have lost their workshops and tools. Small rural production units have been destroyed and the machinery badly damaged. Urban small-scale units have also been severely affected. "In a nutshell, the damage can be said to be near total loss of normal livelihood for the next six months" reported the Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission in November 1999.

8) The health risk:

Some 90,000 cases of diarrhoeal diseases have been reported. An outbreak of measles is also of concern. Cases of acute respiratory infection, especially bronco-pneumonia, and cholera are reported from the field. However, at this time the outbreaks are under control.

II - Government action

With the assistance of other Indian States, the Government has taken significant strides to restore electricity and telephone communications, clear roads, provide medical assistance and distribute relief commodities. Public personnel are performing around-the-clock work to restore public utilities and roads. However, the magnitude of the cyclone and extent of the damage have overwhelmed its ability to respond.

There are still villages that cannot be reached by road. The Government of Orissa estimates that it is only reaching 40% of the affected areas. Electricity and telecommunications are largely non-functional in the principal damaged areas.
Seeds are being provided to farmers, who must start sowing if they want a harvest in May. The Government has already supplied 6,393 quintals of different seeds for distribution to farmers at subsidised rates.

The Government of Orissa is giving priority to orphaned and destitute children, destitute women and other vulnerable groups like disabled, elderly etc. - These groups will be identified, their needs assessed and assistance will be provided. The government is also very concerned by the high increase in child labour.

III - UNICEF action

A critical co-ordinating role:

The UNICEF State Office continues to functions as the "UN House" to facilitate and co-ordinate the UN efforts in the months after the cyclone. Co-ordination meetings with participation from high-level government representatives, aid organisations and donors continue regularly. An essential activity has been to map respective areas of intervention to identify gaps and prevent duplication of efforts. As a result of these efforts, a concerted planning for rehabilitation is being developed in three areas: infrastructure, livelihood and habitat.

2) Recent highlights of UNICEF assistance:

UNICEF has helped provide over 500 latrines for people living in camps. In the Cuttack district, out of 4,000 damaged wells, some 3,600 were repaired within 10 days using supplies and training co-ordinated by UNICEF. In the 13 affected districts, over 68,000 tube wells were repaired, disinfected and restored in less than two weeks. UNICEF assisted the Government of Orissa in disinfecting wells and testing water sources for bacteriological contamination.

UNICEF has been supporting the Government in restoring the cold chain (over 600 cold chain equipment pieces -- such as refrigerators and freezers -- were repaired) and is supporting a measles campaign in three districts covering over 600,000 children under the age of five. (Cold chain equipment is essential for the storage of critical vaccines.)

The intensive Vitamin A campaign conducted by UNICEF before the cyclone is seen as having contributed to children's stronger resistance to diseases.

In the area of child protection, UNICEF efforts to identify and locate children in distress have been launched using volunteers and door-to-door surveys. UNICEF has been advocating with the Government for the development of strategies and programmes aimed at preventing child labour and providing trauma counselling and assistance to orphans.

A Long Road Back

Unfortunately, even before the cyclones the state of Orissa already had some of the worst indicators of human development in India. The Infant Mortality Rate was 96 deaths per 1,000 live births and more than 55 per cent of the children under five years old were malnourished. Some 70 per cent of women and more than 75 per cent of children under three years old were afflicted with anaemia.

As the disaster continues to unfold, it is clear that there is a massive need for food supplies, essential drugs, safe drinking water, shelter and sanitation equipment. The desperate conditions evident in the villages suggest that the situation may become worse with time. That's why UNICEF has committed more than $20 million to providing short and medium-term assistance over the next year, helping children stay healthy, get back to school, overcome emotional trauma, and resume a normal life at home.