Natural Disasters and Children's Lives: Photo Essay
June 5 is World Environment Day
India is vulnerable to many kinds of natural disasters. The scientific consensus is clear that climate change has increased the frequency of many extreme weather events, as well as their intensity. (For example see this report.) Heat waves have become more frequent and heavy downpours more common. Cyclones will likely grow stronger, and more frequent and intense droughts will produce more agrarian distress and fires.
According to the National Disaster Management Authority of India, some 60% of India’s landmass is prone to earthquakes, over 12% of its land is prone to floods and river erosion, and 68% of the cultivable area is vulnerable to droughts. And some 5,700 kilometres of India’s 7,516 kilometre long coastline are prone to cyclones and tsunamis.
A girl going to collect relief rations during from a primary school in Udaynarayanpur block, Howrah district, West Bengal
A four month old baby is taken to a neighbour’s house for safety during the flood
These natural disasters harm children disproportionately, and often have a long lasting impact on them. Children, particularly the poor and those living in coastal regions, flood prone areas and hilly terrain suffer natural disasters that damage their bodily and psychological health.
Since the floods last year, Kerala has seen a spurt in leptospirosis, Hepatitis A, and chicken pox among children after the water receded from flood-affected areas in the state. And Cyclone Fani affected an estimated 13 million people in Odisha. According to Unicef some 33% of the state population lives below the poverty line in Odisha and the overall public health infrastructure of the state is weak.
There is a high prevalence of open defecation after disasters across the state, including in coastal areas, exposed children to heightened risk of disease. Children also suffer from malnutrition caused by disruptions in food supply and illness caused by contaminated water in post-disaster situations. Sometimes disasters cut off access to primary medical care for the entire population.
Damage caused by cyclone Fani at Puri district in Odisha / Twitter@PIBBhubaneswar
A community kitchen running in a primary school for cyclone affected people in the Khordha municipal area in Odisha / Twitter@SRC_Odisha
Natural disasters also interrupt children’s education by displacing families, and destroying schools. Sanjay Singh, an official in the Odisha state government claimed that, “A total of 6,498 schools including 138 tribal schools were damaged in Cyclone Fani which ravaged 14 districts in Odisha.”
Anganwadi or childcare centres were also damaged. A report claims that in Kendrapara, locals have converted the damaged school rooms into temporary shelter for their cattle, which is very common after a flood or cyclone hits any part of the country.
A police officer carrying an infant to safe shelter before Cyclone Fani hits Odisha's Kendrapara district / Twitter@odisha_police
Flood affected families of Halmara villages take shelter inside a primary school in Kaziranga, Assam
Schools become shelter for local communities and livestock during cyclones and floods. In Assam, hundreds of schools across the state remain submerged and hundreds of others are turned into relief camps, hindering formal education every year from June to September.
According to a primary school teacher from Assam’s Morigaon district, “If students remain absent from their classes for two to three weeks at a stretch, it becomes very difficult to maintain consistency in classes. It is not possible to prevent floods but the state can definitely take alternative arrangements for students. Schools on the riverbank can temporarily be shifted to higher ground.”
A girl from Shildubi village in Bookakhat district takes shelter in her school along with her family during a flood in Assam
Children shelter in a primary school during a flood in Assam
Having lost everything in a disaster, people start pushing their children to work so as to help the family in straitened times. Research shows that the trafficking of people occurs most frequently after a natural disaster.
Nineteen year old Pinky was trafficked from the Sundarbans after Cyclone Aila hit West Bengal
A decade after the havoc created by Cyclone Aila in 2009, residents of the Sundarbans area are still struggling with grinding poverty and unemployment. Pinky, 19, was trafficked at the age of 9. Born in a poor family in Kultoli, Pinky never went to school. Her mother sent her to Delhi to look for work with a woman who lives in their village.
After reaching Delhi, Pinky was handed over to a placement agency following which she worked as a domestic help for five families over a period of four years.
She was physically abused in the last six months of her stay in Delhi. One day, she was sexually abused, tied up in a sack and thrown into a pond.
The Delhi Police rescued her and sent her back to West Bengal.
There are thousands of girls like Pinky who are trafficked from cyclone-affected villages in the Sundarbans. Few are rescued.
According to Santanu Sarkar, a social activist based in South 24 Parganas, “The traffickers pose as employment agents, or use local boys to lure girls with false promises of marriage. Once abducted, the girls are sold into prostitution or domestic work. After the girl has been sold off to a brothel, the boy goes back to Kolkata to target a different area in the Sundarbans.”
Students returning home after school during flood at Kuttanad in Alappuzha
After Cyclone Gaja hit last year, the Tamil Nadu government in two different cases rescued two boys aged 10 and 12 years from goat-grazing units. The boys had been sold as bonded labourers.
After the floods in Kerala last year, in collaboration with the state government an organisation called the International Justice Mission initiated a project called Surakshita Kerelam to combat human trafficking.
“The project had three vital objectives: to build the capacity of officials through workshops on human trafficking, to conduct a vulnerability study to identify any signs of human trafficking, and finally to analyse the impact of the workshop through follow-ups. In Ernakulam and Alappuzha, two flood-affected districts, around 1,260 respondents were trained,” elaborates Devasitham Mani of IJM.
“We have noticed that the government does a lot for disaster affected zones. Their first response is to make sure that people are safe and their basic and immediate needs are met. But more needs to be done. Safe migration measures should be implemented to tackle the mass migrations that take place after disasters,” says Mani.
Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist and writer who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues.