GUWAHATI: The dusty roads and swelteringly heat of India’s north-eastern state of Assam now make it hard to believe that like England, it was hit by the worst floods in years just over a month ago. But Assam’s floods claimed the life of at least one child: 12-year-old Atikur Rahman, who drowned trying to bathe in floodwater with friends. His village, Raimadha, in the Nalbari district of Assam, had been heavily flooded for five days. With no fresh water and little food, Atikur was weak and helpless when a strong current came over the road and swept him away.
“If he had been educated about flooding, he would not have drowned,” says FB Manik Shah Mazumder, state project coordinator for ActionAid, India.
If anything, Mazumder considers it a triumph that only one child’s life was lost in the recent floods. In just three months since ActionAid started the Disaster Risk Reduction Through Schools project (DRR) to help teach children, parents and the wider community in rural Assam about flooding, children are far more aware of the potential risks and how to cope with them. Mazumder has been showing visiting English primary school teacher Pat Gardner — whose hometown, Scarborough, was hit in England’s recent floods — how schools are educating Assamese children on how to prepare for flooding.
While flood preparedness is not taught to English children yet, Gardner hopes to glean advice to pass on to her school. “I think we are going to have to teach our children flood awareness in future. If they are going to grow up with climate change, they will have to learn,” she says. Gardner finds it scandalous that teachers in English schools are still not all trained in basic first aid.
The circumstances in Assam and England could hardly be more different. This summer’s flooding was the worst England has ever witnessed and some schools were devastated. The UK government has given GBP 4m of emergency funding to repair damage, and only a handful of schools are not ready for the start of term. By contrast, the Indian government has traditionally been slow to help with flood repairs in Assam, which is a region largely ignored by the rest of the country. As such, the Assamese rely heavily on help from charities.
Preeti Abraham, also from ActionAid, explains: “Here it’s the NGOs that respond first. The government and civil servants come later. When we saw the pictures on TV [of the floods in England] it was really shocking for us to see situations over there like we have here.
“Because we are used to flooding, we don’t appreciate the magnitude of it and don’t respond quickly enough. We don’t push our government. It’s the aftermath, with diseases spreading and loss of sanitation, not just houses being washed away.”Assam is one of two provinces in India chosen for the DRR project, which began in March. It is part of a wider scheme funded by ActionAid and the UK’s Department for International Development in seven flood-hit countries - Bangladesh, Nepal, Haiti, Ghana, India, Kenya and Malawi - which aims to help people help themselves.
But in the last decade people have noticed the flooding getting worse. In 2000, 2004 and now again in 2007, it was exceptionally bad. Mohan Das, headteacher of Bahareghat middle school, says the flood level this year was above head height. “Devastation is immense here. Everything was lost in 2004 floods - our register book, student’s books and learning materials. The school is like my home. I feel that same emotional attachment you would with a house when things are flooded.”
Next year, the DRR project will build higher walls on village wells to stop the water supply becoming contaminated during flooding and raise the levels schools are built on. For now, it is focused on teaching children basic lessons such as not going near floodwater without an adult, how to make and use boats made from the trunks of banana trees, and seeking shelter on higher ground. They are also taught not to drink floodwater without boiling it and to use bleaching powder as a disinfectant.
It seems basic, but it is lifesaving. And the lessons are clearly sinking in. Almost all the children Gardner questioned knew the importance of going to higher ground. Some have grasped more.
“I felt very bad when the water came in,” says Pranjit Das, 9, of Barsimolua lower primary school, where children now have to sit on sacks because the floods destroyed their desks and benches. “The water was higher than me. I didn’t know the floods were coming. We learn from the community and teachers. We know to take shelter in the high lands and go in boats. I’m learning to swim.”
The village children are also being taught the reasons behind the floods. Many factors are involved, including climate change, deforestation and water released at the height of the floods by hydroelectric dams built further upstream. The erosion of embankments that roads are built on, which crisscross the region’s flood plains, is also a problem. “It floods because of breaches in the embankments,” says Pranjit.
Satya Badi Deka, a teacher at Barbari higher secondary school, says: “The children are afraid of the floods, as we all are. It’s the breach of the embankments that really scares them because they don’t have time to get to safe shelters when that happens and they lose all their things.”
The DRR project has also helped to dissuade villagers from taking shelter in the local school (often the only sturdy, concrete building in villages) during flooding. And it is telling villagers about their rights and encouraging them to push the Indian government for help.
“Most of these people are illiterate and don’t know about their rights,” says Prithibushan Deka, president of Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM), ActionAid’s partner in the project. “We are telling them what the government should do and what they can expect.”
GVM has set up various voluntary village committees to help reduce the risk of flooding and cope with it when it hits. “We have got tremendous support,” says Deka. “It was not organised before, but now people are organised and have medicine, shelter and risk teams and are doing preparedness activities beforehand. Before we had disaster prevention, but not in schools and involving children.”—Dawn/The Guardian News Service