Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean
Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Disasters and hazards in the Region
Over 300,000 Guayanese affected by heavy flooding - one third are children
In January 2005, unprecedented torrential rains caused the most severe flooding in over a century in Guyana.
After several days of rain, residents on the eastern coast of the country, and in many parts of Georgetown suddenly found themselves trapped in their homes. Thousands of others were forced to flee to safer surroundings. Especially on the East Coast of Demerara, in some areas, water in homes had reached levels as high as 5 feet. While most could find refuge with family and friends, as well as neighbours of upper flats, many families had no choice but to move to temporary shelters. Many businesses, Government offices, health centres and courts were forced to close as well as all primary and secondary schools in the affected area. Even main roads were flooded and impassable for vehicles, making several communities very hard to reach for rescue teams. The only means of transportation was boats. One month after the flooding, an estimated 92,000 people still had water in and around their homes. A significant number had water on their lands for as long as six weeks.
The densely populated coastal stretch between the capital Georgetown and Mahaica on the east bank of the Demerara River, home to nearly half of the country's population, was particularly hit. Close to 350,000 people were affected (almost 50% of Guyana's 740,000 population), of which 275,000 were severely affected. Almost one third of them were children, and more than half of them were women. Most of the affected people were agricultural labourers and small business persons (including many single women who are heads of households) belonging to the low socio-economic strata. The floods had a significant impact on people's livelihoods, through damage to personal property and loss of productive assets or income from labour for several weeks. Thirty-five persons lost their lives due to the floods.
At the height of the emergency close to 5,000 people, including babies, found refuge in one of the more than 30 temporary shelters, mainly set up in the upper flats of school buildings. During this time, some 40,000 families, or 200,000 people
-were dependent on food rations or delivery of cooked meals. Some 50,000 families living in the affected areas had to rely on delivery of water to their homes and shelters, or through static tanks along the roads for several weeks.
The school system was completely disrupted for a period of six weeks. Some schools were even closed for as long as two and a half months. Since in most villages schools are the only two floor buildings, many of them were used as shelters. 261 primary and secondary schools were closed, resulting in some 83,000 children and adolescents missing classes at a critical time - just before the mandatory national and Caribbean region examinations.
The lack of safe drinking water and the risk of contamination within that polluted environment constituted the main threat, especially for infants and young children who were most at risk of water born diseases. People had to wade through stagnant, contaminated water for many days to secure food and safe drinking water. Many health centres in the affected areas, of which two-thirds were inundated, became dysfunctional as equipment and drug supplies were also damaged.
While moderate floods are usual in Guyana, this generation had never experienced a natural disaster of this scale. Children were especially affected, inmersed in a sense of insecurity and confusion. The trauma linked to the floods and the fact that many people were living in congested settings was also a source of stress. Today, about two months after the last flood waters have receded, and dark clouds gather overhead, Guyanese are concerned as the seasonal May/June rainy period is approaching, and fear of another flood disaster seems very real.
In compliance with UNICEF's Core Corporate Commitments for children in Emergency, the response to the January floods focused on the areas of health, water and sanitation, nutrition, child protection, and education through the governmental Task Forces and line Ministries. At the onset of the disaster in January 2005, the Government of Guyana initially released 200 million Guyanese dollars (approximately US$1mln) for emergency relief. Five National Task Forces on Health, Water, Shelter, Food Security and Infrastructure, coordinated by the Civil Defence Commission (CDC) were established.
The major challenge was to safeguard the health and wellbeing of children and their families. The focus of the relief efforts was, therefore, placed on securing access to safe water and adequate sanitation, and ensuring adequate disposal of solid and human waste.
The Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI) placed over ninety 400-gallon water tanks along the main coastal roads, which were filled by tanker trucks on a regular basis. Sixty of these tanks were provided by UNICEF in addition to four 1,500 litres water tanks. Furthermore UNICEF provided 15,750 water containers (10 litres each) which families used to get water from the static tanks, as well as 14,400 water purification tablets for distribution to households.
An important part of the Health Task Force's response was the establishment of mobile emergency health teams with the objective of providing immediate health services and public health education to affected communities. UNICEF immediately supplied five health kits with essentials for 1,000 persons each. Throughout the emergency response, UNICEF furthermore provided basic logistical and technical support through 10 voluntary experts in hygiene promotion as members of the mobile teams. UNICEF, in collaboration with PAHO, also supported the broadcasting of public health messages on television providing guidance to affected communities.
Through the Ministry of Health, UNICEF provided essential water and sanitation items, including 25,000 Oral Rehydration Salt sachets as well as 40 large water containers and 3,000 buckets used for waste and excreta disposal. In support of the shelter management by the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), UNICEF equipped shelters with essential water and sanitation items and personal hygiene products as well as 3,000 blankets. To protect children against unwanted insect bites, UNICEF also provided 6,480 treated bed nets, of which there is a severe lack in the country. During the floods, these were distributed to families in shelters as part of their family package of essentials upon return to their homes. Currently 16 health centres of the Ministry of Health supplies these bed nets to neo-natal mothers and their babies in affected areas. In the recovery phase, UNICEF is providing obstetric and other essential equipment damaged or lost during the floods.
Regarding nutrition, the focus was on ensuring access to food for the affected populations, especially the most vulnerable groups, such as children and pregnant and lactating women. Upon urgent request, during the first days of the emergency, UNICEF provided 600 emergency dry food rations to feed a family for one week to households in those areas only accessible by boat. In the aftermath of the floods, UNICEF supports the Ministry of Health in its intensification of the nutrition programme in affected areas.
UNICEF worked closely with the Guyana Defence Force to ensure that the temporary shelters were equipped with child friendly spaces. Through its network of partner NGOs, UNICEF provided psycho-social, educational and recreational support, building capacity of volunteers in shelters, and supplying educational and recreational items. Teachers, health workers, community leaders and care givers were trained in psycho-social skills. In the recovery phase, UNICEF has expanded its collaboration with Government, UN Agencies and NGOs, in supporting the provision of psycho-social services through the health and education system. A total of 10 child friendly sites will be set up, with the aim to be integrated in existing community and health centres, and recreational activities will be undertaken in many schools along the East Coast.
The Ministry of Education requested UNICEF to coordinate efforts for the rapid resumption of basic educational services for children. In this regard, UNICEF provided essential cleaning materials and supported the professional fumigation of 261 primary and secondary schools. UNICEF is currently supporting the Ministry in the rehabilitation and upgrading of water and sanitation facilities and providing learning materials to around 40 of the schools most in need. The project will also institutionalise hygiene education in schools, and create awareness on good sanitation practices among students, teachers and community members.
Impact of UNICEF activities
Directly or indirectly, UNICEF's support covered around 275,000 people in Georgetown and the East Coast villages.
Safe drinking and water supplies reduced infant mortality and morbidity from diarrhoeal disease. The combined interventions in the area of health, water and sanitation resulted in stabilisation of affected populations and immediate reduction of water born diseases (including leptospirosis), dengue and malaria, particularly among infants and young children. Of the total number of 35 deaths attributed to the floods, none of them were children. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cases of diarrhoea have actually declined as a result of hygiene promotion.
Some 240 teachers, social workers and NGO volunteers have been equipped with psycho-social skills covering a multitude of children and their families through the education system and community services. In the longer run, public education on water and sanitation, and training in psycho-social support will have a sustained impact on behaviour change and prevention of and coping with future flooding.
The resume of basic education services for children through the rehabilitation of school buildings and furniture, as well as the provision of school materials, enabled 83,000 children to attend classes and complete their mandatory annual exams. Ensuring child friendly spaces in the shelters and outreach to communities contributed to mitigation of trauma and psycho-social impact on the lives of children. It also contributed to change in behaviour and had a positive impact on conflict prevention.
In general terms, UNICEF's interventions served strategically to enhance the Government of Guyana and local authorities' preparedness and response to severe emergencies affecting children's survival and development. UNICEF's expertise in disaster management and response, putting children's and women's rights at the forefront, supported local capacities, reinforced existing protocols, and helped establish a rights-based emergency response mechanism within the the Government, UN agencies and civil society organizations.
more information please contact: UNICEF, Oficina Regional para
las América y el Caribe