My first experience of handling a natural disaster

My first experience of handling a natural disaster

I have travelled across the country to improve the water and sanitation programme for some of the poorest people imaginable that have been hit by a disaster. The work is exhausting and tiring but if executed thoughtfully, it is very satisfying.

As one of the youngest members of Humanitarian Hub in Kolkata, I have spent three years in Oxfam India. Basically, it’s a dream come true for me as I have always wanted to be associated with humanitarian activities! That’s why I chose to study nursing after completing my basic education. For me, the nature of profession is important than the volume of remuneration. Before becoming a humanitarian activist, I enjoyed a very unusual journey, with lots of twists and turns, and unforeseen opportunities! Despite starting my career as a teacher and enjoying the profession for almost 3 years, I pursued my Master’s Degree in Public Health and then joined Oxfam in December 2015. With this, a teacher became a humanitarian activist, with a specialization on WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene).
Almost immediately, I was sent to Tamil Nadu to serve the people affected by one of the worst floods in recent history. The disaster prompted everyone in Oxfam India Humanitarian Hub to become active, with some preparing situation reports, writing proposals and others assessing the situation in the field. I was in a confused state mainly because of lack of experience in the humanitarian sector. I had just completed 2 weeks in Oxfam and was tasked with the responsibility of leading the Public Health promotion activities in southern India as a part of Oxfam’s Flood Response Programme

I still remember my situation - an enthusiastic person who was eager to do ‘good’ work for people, but lacked experience! However, the objective of our WASH team was clear to me, as we had to ensure access to safe water and sanitation to prevent water and sanitation-related diseases. After spending a week in the field, assessing the ground situation and talking to the community (and other members of the team), I realized my responsibility. I also received good support from my team members who made my job easier.

humanitarian worker

In the last three years- as the Public Health Promotion team lead in humanitarian context– I have carried out a number of awareness campaigns on safe water and sanitation. As a part of the work, we had to demonstrate hand-washing, involve children in various competitions, like sports competition, and organised village sanitation fair and mass awareness campaigns through street plays, radio and community led rallies etc. We have also found many innovative ideas to promote PHP programmes. For instance, a PHP mobile van - a vehicle moving in the communities and disseminating key hygiene messages - was quite successful in raising awareness among the community. The move created a good opportunity to pause and reflect on all I have learnt and experienced along the way.

Oxfam India has been a leading player in humanitarian WASH activities, demonstrating rapid and high quality emergency response, influencing the WASH sector with evidence of our effectiveness, supporting community resilience in disaster prone areas in fragile contexts and enhancing national capacity to improve WASH coverage for the most vulnerable. 

There are numerous internal and external drivers for successfully implementing the Oxfam strategy. The most important external driver is the increasing demand for humanitarian support in the changing humanitarian landscape. Ongoing, repeated and new crises and demands for humanitarian assistance mean that the system is being pushed to its limits. Probably, humanitarian assistance will always be required, but international NGOs - like Oxfam - are compelled to work for social well-being. 

humanitarian work

For our endeavours to be completely fruitful, we have to increase our support to the governments and civil partners so that they can respond more effectively to crises. Our focus should be on developing the resilience of the most vulnerable and marginalized section of the community. We should also sensitize more people and provide them with better access to WASH. In post-crisis period, there is an increase of risk for both women and men. Women are more vulnerable as they are disproportionately affected due to pre- existing inequalities, such as barriers to women’s participation and leadership in the decision-making process. A 20-year global analysis shows that ‘natural disaster’ and their global impacts kill more women than men and the effect is magnified after major disasters.

It is important to mention one of our most successful achievements, i.e. market-led WASH programming - an innovation that we adopted first in Tamil Nadu by leveraging local market capacities in order to meet the critical hygiene needs of young adolescent girls. It is imperative to meet the needs of women and adolescent girls during menstruation.

During the South India Floods 2015, sanitary pads emerged as a critical humanitarian item among the women and adolescent girls based on Oxfam’s WASH and gender assessment. Oxfam distributed sanitary napkins among women and girls in the target areas during the relief phase. While implementing the early Recovery Programme, we mainly focused on the market-based WASH response. 

humanitarian work

Compared to conventional in kind distributions, market-based humanitarian programming makes better use of capabilities of the actors in existing market. The idea to introduce the commodity voucher system was to give these young girls the flexibility of choice, as well as the dignity to choose. Our market-based humanitarian assistance is aimed at meeting immediate needs whilst contributing to the long-term economic recovery and resilience of disaster, and conflict affected communities. These have been achieved most effectively by working through existing local capacity and also by carefully mitigating any untoward risks towards the communities with whom we worked in line with our ‘Do No Harm’ approach.  

With the new movement stirring within the humanitarian community of considering a market-based response and recovery, Oxfam India is already on its way towards a more sustainable response. The market-based intervention added a new dimension to Oxfam’s recovery work in South India by placing the beneficiaries within the context of a market. Oxfam identified response options which would reduce dependency on aid, apart from promoting long-term recovery and increasing the stability of local markets that provide people with critical items and generate income.

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Humanitarian Response and DRR

Oxfam India saves lives by building the resilience of communities to disasters and conflict

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