NEW YORK, USA, 22 May 2007 - Unusually heavy rains in Uruguay have caused the worst flooding to hit the country in 50 years. Since 8 May, more than 110,000 people have been affected by the emergency, most of them children, women and elderly living in poor communities.
Seven of the country's 19 provinces have been affected, with three central ones - Durazno, Soriano and Treinta y Tres - suffering the worst. Here, a week of heavy rain has also caused landslides and rivers to break their banks. In Durazno, the River Yi was 14 meters above its average height.
"Within two days, we received precipitation between 350 and 400 millimeters, while on average in most parts of the country we get 800 to 1000 millimeters per year," says UNICEF Representative in Uruguay Tom Bergmann-Harris.
The emergency has forced more than 12,000 people to be evacuated from their homes. Many sports stadiums and schools are now temporary shelters to accommodate the homeless, and most schools in the affected areas have been shut down. Furthermore, thousands of homes and much of the public infrastructure - such as the water supply, sewer and drainage systems, power and telephone lines - have been damaged.
"The conditions in those shelters are not optimal," says Mr. Bergmann-Harris who has visited children and families affected by floods in Soriano. Because the floods came without any warning, most of the affected population is being forced out of their homes with very few or no personal belongings. "This is not a tropical country, we have already entered winter," adds Mr. Bergmann-Harris. "The temperatures are fairly low already, between 8-12 Celsius, so people need clothing, blankets, and the means to help protect them against the cold weather."
On top of the urgent need for food, blankets and winter clothing, another serious concern is the lack of water and sanitation. It is estimated that roughly 30,000 people have no access to clean drinking water. There is also an increased risk of waterborne disease spreading in vulnerable communities. Authorities say some 6,000 children were being vaccinated against hepatitis A and potable water was also trucked in.
UNICEF Uruguay is closely working with the National Emergency System and other partners to confront the situation. The agency has handed over 1,000 blankets, 100,000 diapers and 42 beds among other hygiene products to meet the basic needs of the evacuees so far.
In coordination with other UN agencies, social institutions and local authorities, UNICEF has visited the affected zones in the provinces of Durazno and Soriano to assess the most urgent necessities and resources that will be needed to rebuild the damaged areas.
At the moment, the weather forecast is favourable and reconstruction of the damaged areas is being carried out. Many children are back to school, but in the province of Durazno, where flooding was most severe, there are still more than 800 children who have to wait until their schools are restored again.
After the initial emergency response, "UNICEF is now specifically looking at two issues," says Mr. Bergmann-Harris. "One, is to deal with the trauma many of these children have experienced. Two, in a longer-term perspective, is to help strengthen the country's emergency preparedness capacities."