Unicef rekindles hope in Andaman and Nicobar Islands

By Papri Sri Raman, IANS

Port Blair : From teaching mothers to breastfeed their children to preparing a database of orphaned children, Unicef has brought new hope to the people of the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

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Thus, it is with a sense of immense satisfaction that Unicef has ended its two-and-a-half year involvement with the joint post-tsunami initiative by various UN departments in the islands in the Bay of Bengal. The Indian government and NGOs supported its efforts.

"Our programme started here as a response (to the tsunami), then focused on recovery, and went on to become more and more complex," Subhash Misra, Unicef coordinator for the Islands, told IANS.

"Initially, we focused only in the most difficult tribal areas of the Nicobars. Then we moved on to cover the entire Andaman and Nicobar Islands as part of the process of 'Building Back Better'," he added.

Unicef India received over $21 million for its post-tsunami recovery programme, of which it has spent about $9 million in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The tsunami left more than 12,000 people dead and 200,000 others without homes and livelihood in India.

In the Andamans chain, the killer waves affected some 36,000 people living on 35 of the 572 islands in the archipelago. Thirteen islands in the Nicobar group were totally submerged and six had to be completely evacuated. Officially, 3,513 people died in the Islands while the number of missing has still not been calculated.

Unicef was the first NGO to arrive in the Islands in January 2005 – just days after the tsunami had struck.

Its first priority being to ensure there were no disease-related deaths, Unicef volunteers immunized 28,000 children against measles and also gave them Vitamin A shots. Some 20,000 mosquito nets and repellents were also provided to protect children from malaria.

Unicef volunteers then turned to people like Ruby.

The high waves had washed away her husband and her baby was born prematurely. The traumatized mother did not even know how to feed the baby until Unicef workers in the Namunaghar shelter taught her to breastfeed the infant.

The tsunami left 650 children orphaned. Unicef has established a database of vulnerable children and helped in developing software for the programme.

Steps like these have made a big difference in the lives of tsunami-hit residents of the Islands.

Unicef has trained nearly 1,000 health workers including anganwadi staff, midwives, auxiliary nurses and supervisors in Integrated Management of Neonatal and Childhood Illnesses (IMNCI).

The tsunami damaged 40 of the 135 healthcare facilities and 100 schools in the Islands. Unicef provided equipment like ambulances, labour room tables, disposable delivery kits, water testing equipment, chlorine tablets, and oral rehydration solution (ORS) packets at many of these facilities.

Unicef is also aiding the government's disease surveillance programme on all the islands and has set up the territory's first centralised surveillance laboratory.

Looking back at two years of hard work on the islands, Misra proudly said: "IMNCI, a basic safe-motherhood and child health programme, is reaching all sections of society, including the Jarawas.

"Our doctors have worked with Shompens of Great Nicobar and all Nicobari children, even those not affected by tsunami, have benefited from Unicef interventions.

"We have ensured sustainability of all our interventions as these have a high level of acceptance among the people and the administration."

"Since most of Unicef programmes are located in existing institutions, these will be monitored in regular ways," he added.

"We are now mainstreaming our tsunami-related activities into our regular government-Unicef programmes," Unicef tsunami rehabilitation project officer Barbara Atherly said.