After an arduous nine-hour journey, I finally reach Kozhikode (Calicut) after an arduous journey of nine hours. The journey has been heart-wrenching. About 2000 children are cramped into relief camps along with their parents and caregivers who have lost their valuables to incessant rain and floods.
Tomorrow — day two — should be even longer so we need to be prepared. Kuttanadu (the rice bowl of Kerala, also known as the Venice of the East) will have to crawl back to normalcy. My journey, just over 30 kilometers, took two hours.
Earlier in the day I visited four relief camps in Alappuzha which accommodates 8,000 people. In the middle of their misery the people here celebrate and honour the fishing community who have reached out to save lives. The camps do not have sobbing, cursing or stoic silence. Rather there is a calmness and determination etched on most faces. In the struggle for existence, saving lives and managing supplies, children’s needs are sometimes not at the forefront. The hope is that rehabilitation in Kuttanadu will provide an opportunity to rebuild better.
Driving through Ernakulam, 80 kilometers from Alappuzha and 200 kilometers from Thiruvananthapuram (the state capital), in my hired vehicle, I find a different scenario. The waters have receded and camps are closing. People who have returned to their houses in Paravoor realize the challenges ahead. They find heaps of slush inside their houses and no water to wash it out. No furniture left. No electricity. No utensils. No books and toys for children. An experience of total loss.
People return to find their cattle tied in the cowshed, the dog in chains and the chicken in the cage, all just ‘carcasses’. Then there is the accompanying stench; yet you cannot bury them because the water has not fully dried up.
When I saw my parents return last evening from the visit to our house, their tears and sorrow broke my heart
The clouds that brought the downpour and wreaked havoc are visible in the faces of people who, with lowered heads, return to the camps.
“I was not having any problems till yesterday. When I saw my parents return last evening from the visit to our house, their tears and sorrow broke my heart,” said Saraswathy, a 12 year old girl from Paravoor.
UNICEF and government partner Childline have a team visiting the camps to set up play areas for children and to reduce the impact of trauma on them. A team from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences has also arrived today and psycho-social need assessment is in progress.
Although Kerala has not seen floods in the last 100 years, this disaster calls for long-term planning, which has benefited other states like Bihar and Odisha where floods wreak havoc every year. Their impact has been contained with long term, sustainable interventions.
The journey is long but with clear goals and milestones, we can achieve safety and protection for every child in Kerala.
Sonykutty George is Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF in Hyderabad, India, and currently supports the emergency flood response in Kerala.