Guyana Floods Cause Public Health Emergency

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, January 26, 2005 (ENS) - Five times the normal amount of rain has fallen on densely populated areas of Guyana this month, flooding the capital Georgetown and coastal villages and leaving thousands without shelter, food or water.

The government estimates that a total of 331,000 people are affected by the floods, many at risk of water borne diseases. Officials worry that continued rain may cause the Lama Conservancy Dam to be breached, putting 120,000 persons at risk.

The Guyana Hydrometereological Division says that between January 14 and 18 Georgetown received 25 inches of rainfall. Fifty inches of rain fell in Georgetown during the month from December 24, 2004 to January 24, 2005, while the normal rainfall for this period is just 10 inches.


Floodwaters surround homes in Georgetown, Guyana. (Photo courtesy Red Spider)
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has issued an urgent appeal for $543,000 to support immediate health needs in Guyana. Funds are needed to prevent communicable diseases, set up emergency centers, provide drinking water and sanitation, provide logistic support and coordination, and conduct education and information activities on disease prevention and stress management.

"The disposal of human waste is another very serious problem in affected areas, especially along the East Coast in Demerara," PAHO warned. In the 80 areas assessed to date, 100 percent of the pit latrines, septic tanks or drains are flooded.

"Sewage is mixed with accumulated water, increasing the risk that water-related disease would become epidemic. Many health facilities are not functional and pit latrines and septic tanks are spilling their contents into the flood water. People now commonly use buckets and empty the contents into the water," the health organization said.

Both water treatment plants on the East Coast - Mon Repos and Betterhope - were knocked out of service, and the Guyana water utility placed 57 400-gallon water tanks along east-west roads, which are being filled by tanker trucks, noted PAHO, the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization.

But delivery trucks are in short supply, and although water is being chlorinated, the dosage is very low and the stock of chlorine gas is nearly depleted. Bottled water has also been distributed.

President Bharrat Jagdeo has assumed the leadership of all emergency operations. The government set up a Joint Operations Center (JOC) and five emergency sub-committees - health, water and sanitation, food security, shelters and infrastructure.


President Bharrat Jagdeo visits an emergency shelter on the flood affected East Coast. (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
The government has allocated G$200 million (US$1.12 million) for relief, but Jagdeo says that figure will be increased in coming weeks, although he could not say by how much.

Even though Guyana has made a formal request to the international community for assistance and several pledges were made, they have not materialized, the President said.

Jagdeo told reporters Saturday that the only international assistance received so far was from neighboring Brazil.

“Different agencies have said that we will give you this amount of money. As far as I know we have not received the money as yet. The only thing I know that has been delivered to us, so far, are two truck loads from Brazil that came in with food stuff and some other supplies that I know of,” the President said.

He noted that the Red Cross has brought in an aircraft with supplies, including mattresses, blankets and medication. However, this has not been handed over as yet, nor has it been distributed.

“There have been quite a few pledges made of financial assistance from international agencies. But I do not think we have drawn down any of this money. We have a process which we have to go through to use this money and that process requires some assessment,” he said. "I suspect that once they make their assessment they would assist.”

But the scale of the emergency dwarfs the funds available for relief. "Most health centers remain closed because they are flooded and equipment and drug supplies have possibly been damaged," PAHO said in its emergency appeal. "At present, only 10 percent of the population estimated to receive food is actually receiving it and only 20 percent of those who need water are receiving it," largely due to lack of access to affected areas.


Flooded rural road in Guyana is the result of nearly a month of rainfall. (Photo courtesy Red Spider)
"Public health programs in the area have been interrupted and there is a great demand for post emergency interventions due to the pre-existing vulnerability of the population to dengue, malaria and other vector-borne diseases."

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says 140,000 homes are under water, but the residents are unwilling to evacuate.

Residents in another 32,000 homes that are under water are willing to leave for higher ground, but have no access to relief supplies.

A group of Georgetown medical, banking and geographic professionals have formed a relief coalition. They say that in East Coast Demerara villages the water "remains up to chest high to an adult, not far off the main highways."

The Lama and Boerasirie water conservancies "are full to capacity and overtopping," the coalition says, "and frogs are still calling for rain."