Nigeria: Q&A from the Flood Zone
Torrential rains have been falling in Nigeria since July—causing two major bodies of water, the Niger River and Benue River, to overflow. The flooding has taken lives, damaged infrastructure, and affected nearly 2 million people. The Nigerian Red Cross and the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network have been providing relief and lifesaving aid since day one—including first aid, search-and-rescue, food, and drinking water. Water levels have started to subside, but the urgent and long-term needs of families displaced by the disaster continue to grow.
In addition to a $500,000 contribution, the American Red Cross deployed Noé Hatchuel, a Senior International Emergency Field Operations Officer, to Nigeria for a month. Noé took a moment to speak with us over the phone about his time in the flood zone.
Q. Can you describe what you’re seeing in areas impacted by the floods?
Noé: In some areas, the flooding is so widespread that we can’t even see dry land on the horizon. Entire villages are underwater. That includes homes, agricultural fields, walking paths, everything. The impact—especially on communities located near the rivers—has been devastating. More than 600,000 people have been displaced. They’re either staying in evacuation camps, informal settlements, or with families in nearby communities. I can’t even imagine what these families have had to deal with. Running from their homes in the middle of the night; being bussed far away from their communities.
What I noticed upon arrival here was a great deal of human suffering, but also incredible strength and teamwork: I witnessed people helping each other out; sharing resources; opening up their homes to relatives and strangers.
Q. What do people need?
Noé: They need so many things. The health impact is huge. Clean drinking water and nutritious food can be difficult to come by during non-disaster times, so these floods have intensified those needs. Some people are living alongside the floods—bathing and doing laundry in the polluted waters—while others are living in crowded conditions in displacement camps. So it’s not surprising that families are reporting an uptick in diarrhea, fevers, intestinal sickness, and waterborne diseases. Fear of health outbreaks remains high, particularly in camps where the sanitary conditions are especially difficult.
The impact on people’s ability to farm, to fish, to feed themselves is tremendous. No matter how accustomed people are to heavy rains, floods are devastating to these agrarian and fishing communities. 90% of the people we surveyed say their farmland has been affected. 70% have lost livestock. Those are huge losses for families whose livelihoods depend on cash crops and subsistence farming.
Q. How are communities helping themselves during this difficult time?
Noé: These are tough people. They’re resourceful, they’re resilient. In host communities [non-flooded towns and villages who are hosting evacuees], families have welcomed displaced persons into their homes—providing shelter, food, and small jobs. It’s classic people helping people.
Of course, Nigerian Red Cross volunteers come from communities impacted by floods, too. Despite facing hardship themselves, these volunteers are helping their neighbors evacuate, delivering aid, providing clean drinking water, teaching hygiene skills, and helping to identify the people most in need. The government is running camps for evacuees with Red Cross support. Everyone is pitching in.
Q. Sounds like there are a lot of families. Have you come across some kids?
Noé: I’ve spoken to a lot of kids here! They’re not accustomed to seeing foreigners, so they approach me all the time. Kids are often fascinated by our differences, but of course they quickly discover that we aren’t all that different. It’s clear that some of these kids are suffering—especially when it comes to access to nutrition and clean water—but most kids are smiling, playing, staying curious. Since a lot of the camps for displaced persons are in school buildings, many kids can’t go back to class until the water recedes. In communities further from the rivers, schools have begun re-opening. There, students are playing soccer, climbing trees, and just doing what kids do.
Q. Have you met anyone whose story struck you? Someone you won’t forget for a long time?
Noé: I met a university student living in one of the camps for evacuees. He had been studying environmental sciences, but couldn’t go back to university because of the floods. Instead of giving into despair, he just immediately started serving his community and helping with the camp management. This guy struck me as so rock solid. He’s using his education to ensure humanitarian workers know what’s going on in the camp and what people need. We chatted for a good long time about his life, his studies. Ultimately all he wants to do is get his education, go back to his village, be a teacher, and build a school to help the next generation. I think that’s pretty cool, personally.
Q. You’ve been deployed to Nigeria as part of a disaster team. What’s your role, Noé?
Noé: My team is here to support the Nigerian Red Cross—who asked for assistance from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in responding to these floods. As part of the Field Assessment Coordination Team (FACT), my job is to manage information so we can understand the full extent of the flooding, where it’s happening, who needs what type of aid, and when. I support coordination between Red Cross teams, government agencies, and other humanitarian organizations so we don’t overlap or have gaps in our aid delivery. I bring information and data together to help form a coherent plan for meeting both urgent and long-term needs. Good planning supports accountability and helps us be good stewards of donor dollars.
Q. As the flood waters recede, what are communities facing in the long-term?
Noé: Agricultural fields are flooded. Many have lost an entire season’s harvest. Or missed the planting window. People can’t afford to lose a season’s worth of income. They’ve already lost their tools, seeds, boats, and even their homes. We’re supporting families as they figure out what their new normal is. The Red Cross is figuring out what our long-term support will look like. Recovery can come in the form of tools and seeds, but also in improving community-based disaster response mechanisms. It’s this broader look at what people need, not just now but in the future.
Q. You have deployed to disaster zones in the past. Is there anything that surprised you this time around?
Noé: Honestly, I am blown away by the range and ingenuity in people’s coping mechanisms here. In communities that traditionally experience flooding, families have adapted by building platforms above their homes—living there every time floods occur until the water recedes. People move around their communities via elevated walkways, boats, and makeshift rafts. I’d never seen anything like it!
Q. Is it hard being away from your friends and family for a month?
Noé: As hard as this job is—trying to make order out of chaos—being away from my family for one-month stints is the hardest part. It’s a privilege to be with my wife and kids on a regular basis—I know that not everyone in the world is so lucky. But it’s difficult to leave them. These aren’t your average business trips. Sometimes I’m in a hotel. Other times I’m in a tent or a bug hut. So the physical conditions can be quite tough. Sometimes I’ve had to eat things I wish, in hindsight, that I hadn’t. But as a Red Crosser, that’s part of the deal. Despite all this, it’s worth it.
Q. What’s the best thing you packed?
I’m grateful for my solar-powered battery pack. It enables my connection to the outside world. At the end of a long day, sending a message to my family—to let them know where I am and that I’m OK—can have a disproportionately positive impact on my day.
Another essential is my bug hut. I sleep under it to protect myself from mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and typhoid. This isn’t just a personal precaution—it’s a professional one. I don’t want to compromise my mission by getting sick.
Q. Why do you like working for the Red Cross?
Although most American Red Crossers are volunteers, I am staff. I do this for a living and feel that I have the greatest job on earth. Sometimes my phone rings and I have to pack up, go to the airport, and leave home for a month—it’s my duty to do so. I have a calling to help others and I get to do this work on behalf of a movement that reflects the way I view humanity.
It’s incredible to work in communities only the Red Cross has access to and operate alongside people from all over the world. This is my second trip to Nigeria. I have a great deal of affinity for this place and its people. I have seen Nigerians in the hardest conditions show so much strength and still be able to joke, laugh, shake my hand, and welcome me. There is an inner strength here—despite difficult conditions—that keeps people going.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.