03 November 2011

University assists flood-affected families in Bangkok

A doctor checks Peem’s stomach at a health clinic at Phranakhon Rajabhat University. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

By Andy Brown

BANGKOK, 3 November 2011 – One of the thousands of people made homeless by Thailand’s devasating floods, a tired Gaew waits with with her chubby five-month-old baby, Peem, outside a makeshift health clinic at Bangkok’s Phranakhon Rajabhat University.

“Peem has a stomach ache so we’re waiting to see the doctor,” Gaew says anxiously, holding the boy on her lap. “We’ve been here three days. We left our house in Pathum Thani when the water got waist high.”

There are no classes any more at the university, which now hosts one of the more than 300 evacuation centres set up in Bangkok for people escaping the floods. University students and staff are running the centre on a volunteer basis, and also helping out the volunteer doctors from a nearby hospital working at the clinic.

Gaew, 29, came to the centre with her husband husband and two children.

“My husband is a taxi driver – he goes out to work during the day and I stay here with the children,” Gaew says. “We live in a classroom with 40 other people. The volunteers are kind and they give us plenty to eat.”
ooking at the rising floodwaters on the campus grounds, Gaew says the family is thinking of moving to an evacuation centre at Chulalongkorn University in the still-dry city centre, where her mother is now staying.

Gaew and her family are among over 2 million people affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in more than 50 years. Twenty six provinces are now inundated, and more than 430 people, including over 70 children, have died due to the floods, most often from drowning. Over 100,000 people are living in evacuation centres, including more than 10,000 in Bangkok. As the flood waters surge relentlessly southwards, people are being moved from evacuation centres in northern Bangkok to other centres both inside and outside the city.

Water at the gates

Phranakhon Rajabhat University was on dry ground only a few days ago, but now it’s on the frontline of the flooding, surrounded by water on three sides. The front gate is reinforced by sandbags, but water is seeping through and men with wooden boats ferry evacuees around the campus.

Outside, the road has become a river. Army trucks and lorries plough through the thigh-deep waters, spraying plumes of water from their wheels and leaving waves in their wake. Down the road, men are unloading sandbags from a truck and frantically shoring up failing flood walls.

Nearby, a construction yard is completely flooded. A row of cranes stand motionless, their metal booms rising out of the water like a flock of long-necked birds. Where the road goes over a bridge, it is littered with abandoned cars, parked on the elevated tarmac by their owners in a desperate bid to keep them dry. The vehicles are two or three rows deep, leaving only a single lane for drivers to navigate.

Despite the chaos caused by the floods, people are getting on with their lives as best they can. An old man with skinny legs moves carefully along the pavement, holding up his shorts to keep them out of the water. Another rides a bicycle that is almost entirely underwater, with just the seat and handlebars poking above the surface.

Army trucks are full of people hitching a ride, squeezed in together like chickens in a coop. Under a bridge, a solitary peddler is still selling vegetables out of her stall to a handful of customers on a raised concrete platform.

Ple gives her baby daughter a bath in the former university canteen. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

The evacuation centre is supervised by the university’s Dean, Praeng Kitratporn, who on a recent day was dressed in a sunhat and Wellington boots. He met with staff from UNICEF and local partner Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in English), who were visiting the university to assess the situation of children, distribute UNICEF pamphlets on providing for children’s children’s health, hygiene and nutrition in emergencies, and explore the setting up of a ‘child-friendly space’ to provide play and education activities for children.

“When the floods arrived I decided to turn the university into an evacuation centre,” Praeng says. “We made announcements to local people and used our alumni to spread the word. The government has provided us with food and clothes for the evacuees, but we run the centre ourselves. The main challenge for us is looking after elderly and sick people. We cannot do it on our own.”

Most of the classrooms have been turned into bedrooms for dozens of families. The former university canteen is supervised by Arm, a lanky 22-year-old teacher training student who checks evacuees in and out.

“My home in Ang Thong Province is already flooded, so I can’t go home,” Arm explains. “I could see the people here were in the same situation, so I wanted to help them.”

The canteen’s toilets are available for the evacuees to use, and the kitchen has been turned into a washroom, with lines of clothes strung outside to dry. Inside, families sit on mats surrounded by their few possessions. In a corner, one of the Friends staff has already set up an impromptu child-friendly space and is playing with a group of children.

Another mother, Ple, is living in the canteen with her father and four-month-old baby girl, Namkaeng.

“Our house is on Pahonyothin 48, which flooded this weekend,” Ple says. “At first we went to an evacuation centre in the local school, but it was full so we came here. We brought clothes, an electric fan and baby products. The shelter provided us with mattresses, blankets and pillows. I’m breastfeeding Namkaeng and so far she’s staying healthy. She had a skin rash when we arrived, but we managed to get some medicine for her.”

“It’s difficult living here with a baby,” Ple adds, indicating the crowded room. “I have to carry her around until everyone else has gone to sleep.”

Samnieng is a 77-year-old grandfather with multiple health problems.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Another classroom has been turned into a room for sick and elderly evacuees, including 77-year-old Samnieng, an old man with sunken eyes and painfully thin limbs. He lies on a stretcher surrounded by medical equipment and is watched over by his daughter, Sudhida, and a 13-year-old granddaughter.

“I work for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration as a street sweeper,” Sudhida says. “Our house in Sai Mai district is flooded up to the second floor. My father has lung problems, heart disease, high blood pressure and digestive problems. We brought his oxygen tank with us when we evacuated, but we need to get him more medicine.”

All in all, the university is coping well, but with the flood waters literally at their door and limited medical services available, it’s clear they need help. Ann Charoenpol, one of the Friends workers, says that in addition to distributing the UNICEF pamphlets “we will also look at setting up proper child-friendly spaces here and counselling the parents. They need to be aware of the dangers children face in flood situations.”

Children in Thailand need your help, both during and after this flood crisis. You can donate online now to help support UNICEF Thailand’s work for children.

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