The devastating floods in Assam have resulted in the death of over 180 people and affected around 45 lakhs people from 30 districts as per reports by Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA). The unprecedented crisis has created serious challenges on ground for those engaged in relief work trying to provide essential supplies like food, medications, and fresh water. NGOs, civil society, community organisation, district administration and authorities have been engaged in relief work for Assam floods since first wave of floods hit Barak valley around May 23. Oxfam India’s humanitarian team also started engaging in relief work around this period.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s visit on 1 July to our flood response site in Cachar was a vindication of our work in Assam. This was the 45th day of our Assam flood response which we are carrying out in partnership with UNICEF India. A day earlier the state Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) Minister Jayanta Malla Baruah and the Deputy Commissioner (Cachar) Keerthi Jalli had visited us. DC Jalli has been extremely supportive of us from the very beginning and that is why despite the initial delay in responding, the response has been smooth. The State Disaster Management Authority, NDRF, BSF (since these are border districts) and the local administration coordination and cooperation is enabling us to provide quick relief. Yet, many challenges remain.
By end of June, nearly 2.7 lakh people had been moved to 800 relief camps while 825 relief and distribution centres have been set up for essential supplies by the administration. The floods situation continues to affect people’s lives for than a month now. Silchar, the second largest city in Assam remained under water for six days in the last week of June.
Assam, like Bihar, suffers floods every year. In fact, it is so routine that even the media doesn’t pick it up. The potholes in Bengaluru and water logging in Delhi get more coverage than floods in these states and this means that it is that much more difficult to raise funds for responses in these states which affects the poorest and the most marginalised. Moreover, since our FCRA licence hadn’t been renewed in December last year, working with restricted funds, especially in a disaster of this proportion, was nothing short of running a race with our hands tied behind our backs.
Humanitarian work has been our legacy. Oxfam started as a humanitarian agency in 1942 during World War 2 and came to India in 1951 during Bihar famines. For the last over 70 years, Oxfam in India has led hundreds of humanitarian responses across the country. Despite the FCRA setback we simply had to take the plunge and take our legacy forward. The partnership with UNICEF India became the wind beneath our wings.
As on 4 July we had reached over 35515 people in Cachar and Hojai with (210) shelter kits, (1009) drinking water filter and dignity and hygiene kits, (41000) water purification tablets, (2000) ORS sachets, (14) gender-segregated temporary toilets and bathing cubicles, and most importantly, (5) water purification systems to provide clean drinking water and series of public health promotion activities. While this is the usual protocol for all our flood responses, what stood out this time was the boat mounted water filter. More on that in a bit.
Hitting The Ground
We would have liked to start the response much sooner than we actually did. The State government had initially issued a SOP that all response had to be done through them; after several rounds of negotiations they eased the rules and we were allowed to proceed. Though we lost 10 days, we were still the first big aid agency to reach the flood hit areas.
By the time we reached Cachar and Hojai in last week of May 2022, the flood water had receded. So while reaching the district headquarters wasn’t difficult, we had to hire boats to reach the villages. The flood water takes longer to recede in rural areas. Procurement of response material wasn’t an issue — our shelter kits, hygiene kits were brought in from our warehouses in Kolkata and Morigaon. Meanwhile, the second flood wave hit Cachar and neighbouring Hojai in mid-June again. Transportation of material, especially 2000 water filters coming from Kolkata took longer than expected as the Guwahati-Silchar NH was cut off due to the heavy rains and landslides.
As and when our material kept coming in, we distributed them. In the meantime, there were discussions with the community on what their requirements were. For instance, we realised that girls and women in these parts did not use sanitary napkins and were instead more comfortable with cloth. So in our dignity kits, we provided 4 metres of sanitary cloth and 2 meters of cotton thread instead.
Also since the flood water took its time to recede, we realised that people were using the same flood water to wash their dishes, use for cooking and even defecate in it. The latter since most of the toilets—a few pucca, a few kuccha—had all been submerged. So we built raised temporary gender-segregated toilets and bathing cubicles. Simultaneously, trainings were being given on proper hand washing to prevent infection. Water testing was being done and people were trained to use the halogen tablets.
Boat-Mounted Water Filter
We had already fixed the AP700 water filtration unit in a school in Rajyeswarpur 2, in Mahadevpur GP in Cachar. This would meet the water requirements of 100 nearly 100 households. The women were trained in running the water filter and the unit formally handed over to the panchayat and the WASH committee members.
The water filter —AP700 water filter — draws any surface water including flood water, that goes through 3 layers of filtration including an online chlorine unit that makes water completely safe for consumption. There was some hesitation on the quality of water initially but when we tested the filtered water for the flood-affected communities, they were convinced. What sealed the fact however was that even we were drinking the same water. And now even the Chief Minister had approved of it!
When the second wave hit on June 15, it was more severe than the first one. Water entered Silchar and inundated 90% of the city. Our teams were stuck and it hampered our response work. The project team based in Cachar was stuck without electricity or any transportation facility. Cachar plunged into chaos with no electricity and contaminated and damaged drinking water lines. The road between Guwahati and Silchar was broken and supply hampered. Despite the district administration trying its best, the situation remained grim for days. Drinking water remained one of the biggest challenges. Given that cities were now flooded, we changed our strategy to provide water filter to urban areas instead of rural.
Flood water was everywhere, and the situation was worse in Cachar, due to its inherent nature of being low lying. The SDRF, SDMA were providing bottled water but they were able to provide only 2-5 litres of water per family and that was certainly not enough. The boat-mounted water filter unit idea came from the fact that many areas were under water and the bottled water wasn’t going to meet the daily requirements of the families.
The boat-mounted unit would a) not restrict it to 5 litres per family (people could collect and store water for a couple of days as well) and b) we would be mobile and reach more people in the town. So we hired boats and fit the filter on it. As pointed out earlier, the support of the local administration was commendable. On different occasions, state police and the DDMA provided petrol to run the AP700 water filter; the latter also paid for the boats.
On one of the days we set up the water filter on the roadside, close to our warehouse, in Silchar town—this was the part of the town with a lot of informal sector workers—over 400 people turned up, much more than we had anticipated. In fact, the Assam police provided 20 litres of petrol that day to run our motor!
The boat-mounted water filtration units were in huge demand. And people would stand in waist-deep flood water with buckets and bottles outside their homes. So even when we used to set out thinking that we will go to three places, we couldn’t even complete two identified places properly. We ran these boats for five to seven days.
As photos of the boat-mounted units made it to the media and social media, appreciation poured in. In fact, so impressed were the Chief Minister, PHED Minister and the DC by the water filtration units that the DDMA is also contemplating similar boat-mounted filtration units for future.
Many more aid has poured in the second wave but we can safely say our presence has been longest. Our teams, divided in to two, are camped in Hojai and Cachar. Though the water is receding, and the possibility of more floods has passed (orange and red alerts were sounded a few days ago), we are continuing with our distribution of our dignity and hygiene kits that include water filters.
Humanitarian response doesn’t end with the receding flood water. In fact, some of the public health works will be picked up now. We are once again going to assess the need for more community toilets and clean drinking water facilities. We are replenishing our warehouses. The second wave was unexpected and we don’t want to be caught unawares the third time round. So, while we keep our gum boots and life jackets ready, please continue your support to Assam in every way possible.
While Savvy Soumya Misra works with the Communications team, Neha Rani Verma and Poonam Mishra work with the Humanitarian Hub at Oxfam India
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