10 November 2011

Children find shelter from the Thai floods at a Bangkok temple

Twelve-year-old Tang with his sister Ice at Laksi Temple evacuation centre. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
By Andy Brown

BANGKOK – Forced to flee his home due to rising floodwaters and now living in a Buddhist temple serving as makeshift evacuation centre, 12-year-old Tang can somehow still find a reason to smile.
As a cheerful Tang, his older sister, Ice, and other children busily string together bead necklaces in a ‘child friendly space’ set up for children's activities in the Laski Temple evacuation centre in northern Bangkok, they are surrounded by both beauty and squalor. Golden Buddha statues gaze down upon them from atop pedestals, while ornate pillars with elaborate designs rise up above them. Nearby, dozens of families sleep on mats on the temple floor with their few remaining possessions as the stench of fetid floodwater wafts in through the windows.

“When our house flooded we moved to a school, but there were no supplies there so we came here,” says Tang. “The temple has given us some blankets but they’re not enough. Our family sleeps on the roof. We don’t have any mosquito nets so we get bitten a lot at night.”

Tang's father is motorcycle taxi driver, while his mother worked as a seamstress, but neither have been able to work since the floods.
“Before we left, we packed all our things up to the second floor, including our school supplies," says Tang, whose smile disappears for a moment.

"But then the floods reached there too and we lost all our belongings. I feel sad because I know our parents worked hard to buy these things, but my mother says we have to let it go.”

Tang and Ice are among nearly 3 million people now affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in more than 50 years. Twenty four provinces are currently inundated, and 527 people, including 77 children, have now died due to the floods, most often from drowning. Over 110,000 people are living in evacuation centres, including more than 14,000 in Bangkok. As the flood waters continue to flow southwards, people are being moved from evacuation centres in northern Bangkok to other centres both inside and outside the city.

UNICEF has budgeted Baht 37 million (US$ 1.2 million) to support the government’s emergency relief and post-flood recovery efforts   in the areas of health, child protection, education, water supply, sanitation and hygiene. UNICEF support includes provision of more than 300,000 water, hygiene and sanitation items, including bars of soap, chlorine drops for water purification, alcohol hand-wash gel and garbage bags, to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

UNICEF has also provided 20,000 mosquito nets to protect families against dengue fever and malaria, and has helped set up child friendly spaces at 40 shelters to ensure children have safe areas for play and psychosocial support activities. In the post-flood recovery phase, UNICEF will distribute ‘school in a box’ kits to some 1,000 schools severely damaged by the floods. Each kit contains essential learning and teaching materials for up to 80 students, and will be used to get children back to learning in temporary locations while their schools are being repaired and refurbished.

Two-year-old Maesa waits to take a bath in an evacuation centre at Laksi Temple. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

Don't go in the water

The situation at Laksi Temple is challenging, as the ground floor of the temple is flooded up to a metre high with evil-smelling, oily black water that has flowed through a nearby industrial estate. Children and their families have to wade through the water to get into or out of the shelter. Toilet and washing facilities at the temple are basic and clearly insufficient for so many people, with long queues forming outside bathrooms. Water supplies are also intermittent. Due to this situation, the district authority has stopped managing the centre and moved around 500 people to Chon Buri. Another 200 people including 38 children remain, either unwilling or unable to move.

Jew, from local charity Foundation for the Better Life of Children, manages the child friendly space at the shelter. The charity, which normally runs shelters for street children, is also helping local people who have chosen to stay in their flooded homes.

“Two of our staff come here every day to run the child-friendly space,” Jew says. “We make arts and crafts, tell stories and draw pictures. We have to keep children occupied so that they don’t swim in the dirty water. The boys are the most trouble. We’ve even told them there’s a crocodile in the water, but they keep on doing it.”

The shelter is also home to a few migrant children and families, including Cambodian mother Suporn   and her two-year-old daughter Maesa. They are among the tens of thousands of migrant workers in Bangkok who often lack access to services or to information in their own language. Some migrants are unregistered and risk coming into conflict with immigration authorities, while those who are registered are only permitted to live in the areas where their employment is based, even if those districts are flooded.

Suporn says she and her daughter came to Bangkok a month ago to live with her husband, who works nearby as a security guard.
“It’s difficult for us because only my husband can speak Thai,” says Suporn. “I’m scared that the police will come and arrest us. We’d go back to
Cambodia if we could but we have no money.”

Children read a UNICEF leaflet about health, hygiene and nutrition.© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

Life-saving information

Most of the families at the temple stay on the second floor, but those who came with pets have living quarters on the temple’s roof. Tang’s family and another family have a small shelter in a corner of the roof.  From there, they can to look out over the red tiled roofs of the temple, or down to the dirty water below, where men and boys row past on homemade bamboo rafts.

Tang’s mother, Saengjan, sits under the shelter for shade, eating a bowl of instant noodles.

“We have to live up here because of our pets,” she says, indicating the family dog – a white furry animal now resting in Tang’s lap. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave them behind, but they were keeping the old people awake at night.”
Authorities want to move Saengjan’s family and the other families at the temple to another shelter in a province south of Bangkok that is not affected by the flooding.

“Even though it’s difficult here, we don’t want to move to Chon Buri,” says Saengjan, with tears welling in her eyes. “Our community is here and we have no money for transportation. How would we get back? It’s so far away.”

Saengjan pauses for a moment to compose herself. “It does help a bit staying in the temple because it reminds me of Buddhist teachings about impermanence,” she adds with a sad smile. “Everything in life changes and we should not get attached to material things.”

Children in Thailand need your help, both during and after this flood crisis. UNICEF is currently raising money for ‘school in a box’ kits for flood-damaged schools, hygiene supplies for evacuation centres, and psychosocial support for children. You can donate online now to help children affected by the floods.

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