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 PAHO TODAY          The Newsletter of the Pan American Health Organization   -    August 2006

DISASTERS

PAHO Helps Suriname with Flood Recovery

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) provided expert disaster assistance to help Suriname cope with severe flooding that affected up to 20,000 people and left large areas of the country submerged in early May.

 Group of health workers
Flooding in Suriname in May deluged more than 150 thatched-roof villages in the country's interior. The response to the flood was helped by prior preparedness efforts and broad-based cooperation. © Red Cross/Suriname

The flooding was caused by torrential rains that began falling on May 5, affecting primarily the country's interior, populated by small villages of indigenous and Maroon peoples (descendants of West African slaves). At their peak, the floods affected as much as 30,000 square kilometers of land, including 157 thatched-roof villages. Thousands were forced to abandon their homes and their livelihoods.

PAHO disaster experts helped the country's National Coordination Center for Disaster Response coordinate its relief efforts, providing technical assistance in finance and administration, communications, informational technology, and logistical support.

PAHO was able to provide assistance early in the unfolding crisis thanks to its permanent office in Suriname. The organization helped set up a crisis center and mobilized experts from its emergency and disaster program to assist in health needs assessment and resource mobilization. They helped local health authorities take action to reduce and control flood-associated health risks, including malaria and diarrhea.

With the country's water and sanitation under threat, PAHO brought in an international expert in sanitary engineering, who carried out an initial assessment and made recommendations for improvements. PAHO's country office ordered water tanks and water purification tablets to assure an adequate supply of clean drinking water in the affected areas. PAHO also helped the health ministry procure vaccines and cold chain supplies to prevent typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks.

 Group of health workers
Maroon children from a village in Suriname's interior play on a log as floodwaters recede. © Red Cross/Suriname

At the request of Surinamese authorities, PAHO deployed its computerized humanitarian supply management system known as LSS/SUMA. A team of SUMA experts trained local staff to use the system.

Dana Van Alphen, a PAHO emergency preparedness advisor, said Suriname's response to the floods was largely successful, thanks to prior preparedness efforts, including the formulation of a National Disaster Plan, with PAHO input. Also helpful were the involvement of a large network of nongovernmental organizations, many of them active in the country's interior, and coordination between national and international groups.

"In many cases, the response to a disaster is seen as a government responsibility, and one does not always see the benefits of a joint approach," said Van Alphen. "Suriname is an example of how close collaboration between government, including the military and the police; NGOs; and international organizations can lead to a quick and proper response to an emergency."

Lt.-Col. Jerry Slijngaard, head of Suriname's National Coordination Center for Disaster Response, said: "We never thought Suriname would be struck by a disaster of this magnitude. I was moved by the quick response of the international community.... We have found a good partner in PAHO. They have supported us from the beginning and really pushed on including the health element in our national preparedness. Now that most international assistance is leaving, I hope we can continue our cooperation."

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