A knock on the door saves lives but heralds tragedy

تم النشر: 4 نوفمبر 2016 7:46 CET

By Patrick Fuller, IFRC

On the night of 30 August, Ri Ju Ok, 75, and his wife Son Dok Ri, 72 were preparing for bed when a knock on the door had them scrambling up the hill behind their home within minutes. It was 11pm and floodwaters were coursing through their village. Red Cross volunteers had been going house to house evacuating the elderly to safety as quickly as possible.

Events that night changed the small community of Kangson-gu in Musan County irrevocably. The village sits on a tributary of the Tumen River which snakes along the Northeast border of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with China.  Two days of heavy rains caused the river to burst its banks, resulting in some of the most destructive flash floods experienced by DPRK in the past 20 years.

For two days Ri Ju and Son Dok, sat on the hillside looking down on the expanse of water that had swept away more than 100 homes in the valley below. 

“The water looked bigger than the sea and the mountains were connected by the water,” said Son Dok. “I saw the houses below floating away. I was close to tears because I was alone without anything”.

Red Cross volunteer Pak Un Hye, 37, had evacuated the elderly couple. She also lost her home to the floodwaters. For the past two months all three have been living next door to each other in temporary shelters made from tarpaulins provided by the Red Cross.

Life in the temporary shelter where Ms. Pak lives with her husband and 11 year-old daughter is not easy.

“I would like to have lights but there is no electricity and the cold weather has started,” she said. “The shelter is not designed for the winter, it is very thin so we make a fire at night to keep ourselves warm”.

The shelters form a long line on empty land where the village once stood. Now all that remains is an expanse of sand, rock and silt covering the valley floor. Half destroyed homes with their walls sliced off sit at the foot of the surrounding mountains, somehow spared by the torrent of water that passed through.

“This was a road, over there was a flowerbed, next to it a playground for children with a swing. Next to me was a river with a beautiful riverbank,” points out Ms. Pak.

Relief supplies distributed by the Red Cross soon after the floods have been put to good use here. Evacuees sleep under warm quilts and cook the rations distributed by the government using pots and pans and other utensils provided by the Red Cross. They also received soap and other personal hygiene items.

Musan County was hit hardest by the floods. Over 9,000 homes were lost and now a massive reconstruction effort is underway to rebuild entire communities before the winter really sets in. The Government is leading the process and has mobilised a workforce of thousands to complete the task of constructing 20,000 new households across all flood-damaged counties in North Hamgyong Province by mid-November.

“It’s staggering how fast houses and apartment complexes are going up”, said Patrick Elliott, shelter advisor with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in DPRK.

“Building this volume of permanent homes would take any middle-income country at least three years to complete after a disaster of this magnitude. Here, it’s going to take pretty much three months.”

The IFRC, together with the UN and other international organisations are contributing to the reconstruction effort by providing corrugated iron (GGI) roofing sheets for 10,000 housing units. The IFRC’s contribution of 200,000 roofing sheets represents 30% of this commitment.

Despite their age, Ri Ju and Son Dok have been playing their part. Each day, like everyone else in the temporary shelters, they help out on the local construction site where their new homes are being built. The few bricks they are able to carry up from the river to the masons make a difference.

Ms. Pak also lends a hand. She makes soya milk at home each morning, delivering it in a plastic bucket to the construction workers. She also continues to care for the elderly living in the temporary camp, helping them with household chores such as collecting firewood, fetching water from the nearby stream and monitoring their health.

Temperatures in Kangson-gu are already below zero at night and will drop to -15 degrees by the end of November.

“Our main concern is that people are ill-equipped to face the winter months ahead”, says Chris Staines, the IFRC’s head of delegation in DPRK.

“It’s positive that the reconstruction of homes is moving so fast, but safeguarding people’s health and preventing disease is a priority now. It will take time to restore water supply to communities and provide adequate sanitation. Essential drugs are in short supply and we have to make sure people have warm clothing and other essential supplies to see them through the winter”.