Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A Bangkok university rises to flood challenge

A doctor checks Peem’s stomach at a health clinic at Phranakhon Rajabhat University
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Tired mother Gaew is one of the thousands of people made homeless by Thailand’s devastating floods. She waits with her chubby five-month-old baby, Peem, outside a makeshift health clinic at Bangkok’s Phranakhon Rajabhat University. “Peem has a stomach ache so we’re waiting to see the doctor,” she says anxiously, holding the boy on her lap. “We’ve been here three days. We left our house in Pathum Thani when the water got waist high.”

There are no classes any more at the university, which now hosts one of the more than 300 evacuation centres set up in Bangkok for people escaping the floods. University students and staff run the evacuation centre on a voluntary basis. At the clinic, they are supervised by doctors from nearby hospitals.

Gaew, 29, came to the centre with her husband and two children. “My husband is a taxi driver – he goes out to work during the day and I stay here with the children,” she says. “We live in a classroom with 40 other people. The volunteers are kind and they give us plenty to eat.” She looks out at the rising floodwaters on the campus grounds. “But now that the water has come here, we’re thinking of moving to another evacuation centre at Chulalongkorn University in the city centre, where my mother is staying.”

Over 2 million people have been affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in more than 50 years. Twenty six provinces are now inundated, and more than 430 people, including over 70 children, have died due to the floods. As the flood waters flow relentlessly southwards, people are being moved from evacuation centres in northern Bangkok to other centres both inside and outside the city.

On the road

UNICEF Thailand's Napat wading down the flooded road outside the university
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

Just getting to the evacuation centre at the university was a major challenge. I travelled up in an SUV with Vicky from UNICEF’s child protection unit, Napat from communications, Ann from our local partner Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in Thai) and freelance photographer Chum. The purpose of our visit was to assess the situation of children, to distribute UNICEF pamphlets on children’s health in emergencies, and to look at setting up ‘child friendly spaces’ to provide play and education activities.

I live on Pahonyothin Soi 9, which was still dry, but by the time we got to Soi 44 the road had turned into a river. The trucks in front of us churned up the water, sending spray from their wheels and waves in their wake. Men were unloading sandbags from a truck and frantically shoring up flood walls. I saw one family sat on top of a sandbag wall protecting a miraculously dry soi (small street). We drove past a flooded construction yard, where a row of cranes stood motionless, their metal booms rising out of the water like a flock of long-necked birds.

Whenever the road went over a bridge, it would be littered with abandoned cars, parked on the elevated tarmac by their owners in a desperate bid to keep them dry. The vehicles were two or three rows deep, leaving a single lane to drive down. It reminded me of scenes from apocalyptic Hollywood movies, where people abandon their cars in the middle of the road to flee an alien or zombie invasion.

Despite the chaos, people got on with their lives as best they could. An old man with skinny legs moved carefully along a pavement, holding up his shorts to keep them out of the water. Another rode a bicycle which was almost entirely underwater, with just the seat and handlebars above the surface. Army trucks drove past full of people hitching a ride, squeezed in together like chickens in a coop. Under a bridge, a solitary vendor was still selling vegetables out of her stall to a handful of customers on a raised concrete platform.

Water at the gates

Ple gives her baby daughter a bath in the former university canteen
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
We arrived at Phranakhon Rajabhat University to find that the road outside was heavily flooded. We parked on a bridge, got out and waded to the entrance. I’d dressed in lightweight jeans and hiking shoes, so I had to roll up my trousers, put my shoes in my rucksack and wade barefoot through the flood waters. I did at least have the advantage of height. My shorter colleague Vicky clung onto my arm. “Don’t leave me Andy,” she pleaded.

At the gate, we climbed over a pile of ineffectual sandbags and into the water on the other side. Two men were rowing a wooden boat around the campus, so Vicky and I climbed in. They dropped us at the medical centre, where we met the University Dean, Praeng Kitratporn, a middle-aged man in a sunhat and Wellington boots. “When the floods arrived I decided to turn the university into an evacuation centre,” he told us. “We made announcements to local people and used our alumni students to spread the word. The Government has provided us with food and clothes for the evacuees but we run the centre ourselves. The main challenge for us is looking after elderly and sick people. We cannot do it alone.”

After meeting Batumthani at the medical centre, we went to one of the rooms where the families were living. It was supervised by Arm, a lanky 22-year-old teacher training student who was checking people in and out. I asked him why he had volunteered. “My home in Ang Thong Province is already flooded so I can’t go home,” he replied. “I could see the people here were in the same situation, so I wanted to help them.”

The room was a former canteen so there were toilets for the evacuees. The kitchen had been turned into a washroom and lines of clothes were strung outside to dry. Inside, families sat on mats surrounded by their few possessions. There was a TV showing – somewhat unnecessarily – a news report about the floods. In a corner, one of the Friends staff had set up an impromptu child-friendly space and was playing with a group of children.

I spoke to another mother, Ple, who was with her father and four-month-old baby girl Namkaeng. “Our house is on Pahonyothin 48, which flooded this weekend,” she said. “At first we went to an evacuation centre in the local school, but it was full so we came here. We brought clothes, an electric fan and baby products. The shelter provided us with mattresses, blankets and pillows. I’m breastfeeding Namkaeng and so far she’s staying healthy. She had a skin rash when we arrived but we managed to get some medicine for her.”

I asked Ple if they were having any other problems. “It’s difficult living here with a baby,” she replied, indicating the crowded room. “I have to carry her around until everyone else has gone to sleep.”

Elderly care

Samnieng is a 77-year-old grandfather with multiple health problems
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Our last stop at the university was a room for sick and elderly evacuees. Here we met 77-year-old Samnieng, an old man with sunken eyes and painfully thin limbs. He was lying on a stretcher surrounded by medical equipment. I spoke to his daughter Sudhida, who was watching over him with her 13-year-old daughter. “I work for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration as a sweeper,” she said. “Our house in Sai Mai district is flooded up to the second floor. My father has lung problems, heart disease, high blood pressure and digestive problems. We brought his oxygen tank with us when we evacuated, but we need to get him more medicine.”

All in all, the university seemed to be coping well, but with the flood waters literally at their doors and limited medical skills, it was clear they needed help. I asked Ann from Friends what assistance they could provide. “We'll soon start distributing UNICEF leaflets on health, hygiene and nutrition,” she said. “We’ll also look at setting up child-friendly spaces here and counselling the parents. They need to be aware of the dangers children face in flood situations.”

There was a heavily sandbagged 7-Eleven store still open at the university, so we bought a few packets of crisps for lunch, said goodbye to the Dean, and headed off to our second destination – an evacuation centre at Laksi Temple.

Read part two of this blog »

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