Twenty-year-old Shabana’s child was born on a day when strong winds howled outside her makeshift shanty and rising flood waters kept swallowing houses and properties in its fury. A few days before the birth of her child, pre-monsoon showers had submerged her house in Pakali village of Assam’s Nagaon district. A shack was hastily built to facilitate the delivery. Shabana couldn’t be shifted to a hospital; she delivered her baby with the help of an ASHA worker. The single mother is worried about her child’s nutrition, born underweight. Let alone breastfeed her baby; she struggled to get two square meals a day.
Incessant rains from the beginning of May led to floods, landslides, embankment breaches and waterlogging in the state, killing 38 people and affecting 31 districts, over seven lakh people, including 141,050 children. The state government set up as many as 143 relief camps across Hojai, Cachar, Darrang, Nagaon, Biswanath and Dima Hasao, the worst affected districts. Typically, monsoon arrives in the state in June and July; however, the intense pre-monsoon showers, 65% in excess, were the reason behind this deluge. Experts attributed the changes in the intensity and arrival of rainfall to climate change. What’s even more worrying? The heavy monsoon rainfall is yet to arrive.
Bal Raksha Bharat has mounted a humanitarian response reaching out to the families in relief camps with immediate support. Our on-ground actions brought forth numerous alarming issues that need immediate attention. Apart from the loss of property, household items, and stock food items, the floods severely affected people’s livelihood as a large part of the farmland was damaged. Many families with children are taking shelter in relief camps and roadsides in unhygienic conditions without access to safe water and sanitation. Schools and Anganwadi centres are damaged and non-functional, making continuity of education an almost impossible option. Children, especially girls, remain particularly vulnerable to trafficking and harmful labour.
The fertile topsoil has been washed away. Stagnating floodwater and debris deposited have destroyed the existing crops. All that’s left behind is a rotten stench of destruction. Men, women and children were engaged in saving whatever remained. Some of it can’t be consumed and could lead to diseases, but a family said, “It is better to be sick than die of hunger.”
In Gezeripam village of Kampur, loud coughs of children and adults echo everywhere. Ever since the floods, children have been suffering from high fever. The only road that connects the village to any medical facility was broken. There were no medicines available, and there was no way of knowing whether it was a normal fever or something else. The village had no water, electricity or sanitation facility. At the time of the visit, the kids had not eaten more than one meal a day. A health crisis was looming over the village.
Women Struggle to Find Clean Water, Unable to Defecate
Twenty-five-year-old Shahida (name changed) was starving. Like many other women in her village in Nagaon district, she avoided eating rice for fear of having to relieve themselves. Finding dry land was difficult. If they found dry land, clean water was unavailable. And if they had to defecate, they were forced to use the flood water to wash. Moreover, defecating in the open is embarrassing for them and puts them at risk.
The women in this village defecate once in three days if they find a private space. They have no option but to request one of the better off homes to allow them access to one. However, they may not be successful each time.
“I feel so much discomfort that my back pains. To add to it, I have to walk at least 1.5-2km to fetch water. We prefer to save the water for consumption rather than use it for washing,” said Shahida.
“It’s worse for menstruating girls and women. We don’t get to wash the cloth. We keep it on all day and throw it away. We cannot afford disposable sanitary pads,” added another woman.
Mourning for Lost Friends
Fourteen-year-old Imran, the only child of his parents, was born prematurely. He had developmental delays that led to hearing loss. As the riverine floods ravaged homes, he did not hear anything. The only hearing aid the State Social Welfare Department provided to him was lying on his bedside, now soaked in water.
Imran can speak but cannot comprehend what kids his age say. Going to school was the only activity that took his mind off the loneliness. “First, it was COVID, now the floods. I have missed my classes; I also miss going to school. That is the only interaction I had with children my age,” said Imran. “My books were the only thing I had. I feel lost and lonely without them. If I don’t go to school, I don’t know what else to do. Please ask them to start classes soon.”
His mother said this is the first emotional outburst he has had since the floods damaged their home, reducing life to a space created between two plastic sheets on an elevated road. Everything else has been washed away.
Learning Against All Odds
Asmina Khatun’s, 15, home in Nagaon looks like an island – a lonely house surrounded by inundated paddy fields. Like many other children, she has been missing school – first due to COVID and now the floods.
“I am unable to concentrate on my studies. I spend most of my time collecting water and helping my mother. Due to COVID, I lost two full years, and I don’t want to lose any more. This rain has disrupted our lives. I wish to be a doctor and help my community by providing free health care services.” What used to be a joyous walk to school with her friends has turned into a treacherous boat ride. Amid floodwater, the one thing that she could cling to was her school uniform and her bag. That’s all she needs to carry on with life.
Bal Raksha Bharat plans to set up child-friendly spaces for learning continuity, required care and protection, and psycho-social support to children. Temporary shelter materials, education kits, family hygiene kits and food items will also be provided to children and families. The long-term intervention will include support for livelihood restoration of families in distress.