When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on 2 May, the 112-knot winds knocked out power and communication lines and caused widespread destruction reminiscent of the catastrophic tropical cyclone that struck the Indian coastal state of Orissa in 1999. The Burmese authorities – if they cared about their people at all – would have done well to learn from Orissa. The cyclone there left unprecedented devastation in its wake. It compelled the state, the Government and NGOs to put in place a new approach, looking not just at relief but at what can be done before a disaster strikes.
Today, village women in Orissa have been trained to respond to natural disasters. Working via self-help groups, they can build houses for those left homeless, run community kitchens, organize medical relief, administer first aid and rescue drowning people. When major floods struck the region in 2006, the women’s timely response illustrated their well-honed emergency management skills. As the flood warnings arrived, ‘we hastened to the community health centre,’ explains Nayani Mohanty, one of the women trained in first aid, ‘and requested the doctor to release sufficient paracetamol, diarrhoea medicine and oral rehydration salts to the local grassroots health worker. Then from her we distributed these among vulnerable families.’ Another trained group fanned out to their respective villages to inform every household about when and how to evacuate.
In the flood-prone coastal districts, 40 per cent of search and rescue team members are women, partly because of the social unacceptability of male rescuers handling drowning women, but also because rural women, who bathe in rivers all their lives, are expert swimmers. Another female forte is providing vital psychological first aid, including counselling.
Aside from a calendar highlighting the disaster seasons, community helpers have drawn up detailed charts on communicable ailments, nutritious regional foods such as mandia, or finger millet, and various sources of water – safe and not-so-safe – available to the community. Breaking into the male bastion of masonry, more than 300 female construction workers have been trained in the special cyclone-resistant ‘rat trap’ design for buildings and low-cost dwellings, which enables walls to withstand higher impact cyclonic winds.
While pockets of women collectives are involved in disaster management, there are also individual women whose commitment is serving as a rallying point for communities.
During the last floods, 29-year-old Mamata Grahacharya, from a poor farmer’s family, risked her life to look after her community. She hid from the torrential rains under a tarpaulin sheet, along with 1,000 kilograms of rice and 500 kilograms of coal, and waited through the night at the Marshaghai river embankment for her designated boat to ferry her to the Mangarajpur village emergency kitchen. She finally reached there at three in the morning.
Women like Mamata disprove the old belief that natural calamities are fated and that human beings can only stand helpless before them. They have emerged stronger and are now gaining the skills to tackle disasters head-on, rather than allowing them to destroy their hard-built economic assets, homes and families.