Racing to combat the spread of disease in flood-ravaged Solomon Islands

Published: 10 April 2014 16:13 CET

By Corinne Ambler, New Zealand Red Cross

When a wall of water came roaring down Honiara’s Mataniko River towards her riverside home, Anna Maena only had enough time to grab her two children and run. She watched from a nearby hill as her home was destroyed and carried away, leaving the family with almost nothing.

“All the houses were washed away,” she says. “They didn’t even float, they just sank.”

Now Anna, 41, and her daughter Nelly, 7, and son Dickie, 5, are among approximately 9,000 people living in evacuation centres throughout Honiara city after what many Solomon Islanders are calling the worst floods in living memory.

At Mbokonavera School evacuation centre, where Anna and her family have been for a week, there are seven toilets for 1,800 people and not all of them are working properly. The family is living in a classroom with 17 people; in some rooms there are up to 40 people.

A week after the catastrophe, the death toll has reached 21 with some people still missing. While teams comb the coastline for bodies, aid agencies are still trying to reach isolated areas of Guadalcanal where it is feared there may be more casualties and people in dire need.

There have been isolated cases of diarrhoea, eye infections, respiratory illnesses, malaria and dengue fever at the overcrowded evacuation centres. The Government is encouraging those who still have homes to return, so disease is less likely to spread.

Solomon Islands Red Cross Society Deputy Secretary General Clement Manuri says its focus right now is on providing safe, clean water. The Fire Service has been supplying evacuation centres with water for washing and cooking, but drinking water has been desperately scarce.

“We are operating our NOMAD water purification units from dawn ‘til dusk but, as fast as we make clean water, it is used up. We hope more NOMAD units can be brought into the country as people are getting sick from drinking contaminated water,” he says.

The NOMADs can purify 5,000 litres of water per hour, and Solomon Islands Red Cross has the only two units permanently in the country, and the only teams trained to operate them. Australian Red Cross has sent a machine which is being urgently set up. Fiji Red Cross and French Red Cross (New Caledonia) are also sending machines.

Staff and volunteers have also been delivering non-food items such as blankets, hygiene kits, jerry cans, sleeping mats and family kits as part of a multi-agency group of NGOs including Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision. The Honiara City Council and NDMO are coordinating food deliveries to the evacuation centres.

The future for people like Anna and her children is uncertain. No house, no belongings, and no plan of where to go now. “Living here is alright but it’s not a good future,” she says sadly.

Solomon Islands Red Cross Society estimates more than 50,000 people have been affected by this disaster.