UNICEF delivers mosquito nets to an evacuation centre in flood-hit Bangkok
Seven-year-old Ratnasunder lives with her grandparents and pet dogs in a former classroom at an evacuation centre at Bang Kruai Nok Temple, in Bangkok. The ground floor of the building is flooded and the only way in or out is by boat. For a child who had to flee her home in the face of rising floodwaters, Ratnasunder seems happy and carefree. She smiles broadly and lifts up one of the dogs, squeezing it tightly.
Her grandmother Tongploen is more sombre. “We used to live in a single story house alongside the canal at Wat Po Ain,” she says. “We went back once and rescued some clothes but it’s now flooded up to the roof so we can’t get in. We’re comfortable living here but it’s hard to get out. We used to have our own boat but it’s broken so now we use the public boat.”
The difficulty getting around has separated the family. “Ratanasudar’s mother works as a secretary in an office in Banglampu,” Tongploen continues. “She’s living there now and we haven’t seen her since the floods. We can’t get in touch with her as she doesn’t have a phone. But she knows that we’re here. She came to see us before the floods and we agreed that if Wat Po Ain flooded, her daughter would stay here with us.”
Ratnasunder and Tongploen are among nearly 3 million people who have been affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in more than 50 years. Twenty four provinces are currently inundated and 527 people, including 77 children, have died due to the floods. Over 110,000 people are living in evacuation centres, including more than 14,000 in Bangkok.
Following my visit to evacuation centres in Bang Khen and Laksi districts, I went to Bang Kruai Nok to deliver UNICEF-supplied mosquito nets for children and families. I was travelling with Andrew and Kanda from UNICEF Thailand and photographer Nunt. Our first stop was at the Ministry of Public Health, a heavily sandbagged building that had itself recently been at risk of flooding. Here we loaded boxes of health and hygiene supplies into trucks, including the UNICEF-supplied bednets.
So far UNICEF has provided 20,000 mosquito nets to protect families against dengue fever and malaria, and helped set up child friendly spaces at 40 shelters to ensure children have safe areas for play and psychosocial support activities.
“The Thai Government gave us a list of supplies they needed, including insecticide-treated bednets,” UNICEF’s Andrew Claypole explained. ”We were able to procure 20,000 family-sized nets via our supply operation in Copenhagen. Each net can sleep two adults and three children. One of the main threats is dengue fever, which is carried by daytime mosquitos. The nets also make children more comfortable. Beforehand, they were sleeping outside and being eaten alive.”
We were joined by staff from the Ministry and local council, and drove in convoy towards Bang Kruai Nok. After we crossed the Chao Praya river, the tarmac quickly disappeared beneath the spreading floodwaters. “We came here this morning and the road was dry,” one of the local council staff observed.
On one carriageway, the water was still shallow and vehicles drove down it in both directions, abandoning all rules of the road. As before, the road was littered with abandoned cars wherever it rose above the water. There were piles of uncollected garbage on the pavement, which were being picked at by stray dogs.
Eventually we could go no further, and got out of our vehicles. This time, we were better prepared with life jackets and Wellington boots. We were still some way from the canal but enterprising locals were offering lifts in small wooden boats. There were too many of us to fit into the small boats so we split into two groups. Andrew and Kanda went with one group to a school and Nunt and I went with the other to the temple.
We picked up boxes of supplies, climbed into the boat and rowed down the flooded road to the canal, where we clambered across to a larger local council boat for the journey to the temple. The monsoon season had ended suddenly a couple of weeks before, almost like turning off a tap, and the sun was shining fiercely from a cloudless sky. I didn’t have a hat with me so I tied a spare UNICEF t-shirt round my head for protection.
The canal had risen several metres above its usual level. Most houses were half submerged but some were still lived in, with piles of possessions visible on the upper floors and small boats tied up outside upstairs windows and balconies. In places, small spirit house still stood intact on stilts above the flood waters. A middle-aged woman’s face peered out over the flood waters from the top half of a partly submerged election poster, and a now inappropriate advert for a new condominium showed a couple happily splashing around in a swimming pool. Vegetable sellers in straw hats continued to do business from small boats, plying their trade up and down the swollen canal.
Eventually we arrived at the temple, moored our boats and went inside, walking on precarious wooden planks over the flood waters. The evacuation centre itself was in the upper floors of the temple school building, where rooms named ‘Library’ and ‘Science’ now housed dozens of families. In another room, a health clinic had been set up, with a wooden table stacked high with medicines.
The evacuation centre felt strangely empty. There were a few dozen women and children there but far less than at other shelters we had seen. Dogs lay in the stairwells, sleeping through the noontime heat. It turned out that the area was relatively prosperous and many of the evacuees still had jobs to go to. They would stay at the temple at night and go out to work during the day.
At the clinic, I spoke to Akasit Srichouchom, who was in charge of health care at the evacuation centre. “The mosquito nets are very welcome,” he told me. “Last night we had a case of dengue fever here. We took the patient by boat to the local hospital. It’s only five kilometres away, but it seems further when you go by boat. We also use the council boats to make home visits to deliver medicine and register chronic conditions. We now have a map of everyone in the area with an illness.”
On the top floor of the centre, staff from the Ministry of Public Health demonstrated the correct use of the bednets to Ratnasunder, Tongploen and the other evacuees. They also showed them how to use makeshift toilets, fashioned from plastic chairs with a hole in the seat and black bin bags beneath. As the only UNICEF staff member in the group, I had to perform an extra role by handing out nets for the photoshoot.
“When we go out to visit evacuation centres, the main complaint we get is about mosquitos,” Dr Manit Teeratantikanont, Director-General of the Department of Disease Control, told me. “Mosquitos breed in water and now there’s water everywhere.” He pointed to the large windows in the school building. “But now that they have bednets, people can open the windows at night and let some fresh air in.”
As we made the return journey to the Ministry of Health, driving the wrong way down a partly flooded dual carriageway with our emergency lights on, I reflected on how lucky I was. My flat is in a central area of Bangkok that, due to its proximity to the business district, is protected from the floods by canal sluice gates and a floodwall made from giant sandbags. Yet the measures that kept us dry were also prolonging the suffering of people on the other side of the wall.
It was strange – in Aree, you could almost forget there was a natural disaster going on just a few kilometres down the road. My visits to the evacuation centres had shown me the reality of the situation for ordinary people, and I felt glad to have been able to help.
Andy Brown is Regional Web Coordinator for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific
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