A helping hand for Tibet's flood hit rural communities

Published: 5 November 2001 0:00 CET

The floods that struck one of the major barley producing areas of the Tibetan Plateau in August 2000, were the worst in living memory in the region. Financial losses were estimated at 75 million US dollars with more than 10,000 homes, 98 bridges and dykes destroyed. The loss of grain and livestock too had a great impact on the farming communities who faced food shortages this year until the next harvest took place. But thanks to the Swiss Red Cross, with funding from the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), many of the poorest families were helped through the lean times.

For just over three weeks last year, Shigatse Prefecture, south west of Tibet, was hit by the worst floods in living memory in the region. The most affected area was that of the Nyingchu River between Shigatse and Gzantse, which covers vast areas of remote, mountainous farmland. Crops were destroyed, adobe houses collapsed and the disaster happened so fast that farmers did not have time to rescue their food stocks from previous surplus years.

Responding to a request from the government and the Tibet Red Cross for help, the Swiss Red Cross this year implemented a relief programme that included the provision of foodstuffs, essential drugs and the rebuilding of health clinics with 500,000 US dollars of funding from ECHO and additional help from the Federation's regional delegation in Beijing.

The three month programme was designed to help families through the most difficult period when there would be little or no food - the growing season for the next barley crop between April and October. Parcels including butter and barley, the essential items in the Tibetan diet were distributed to just over 22,000 people between July and August in six counties by the Swiss Red Cross and the Lhasa and Shigatse branches of the Tibetan Red Cross. Help from local authorities was crucial in identifying those in greatest need and in getting access to remote mountainous communities to carry out the distributions.

But the Swiss Red Cross hasn't just concentrated on food distribution as a way of helping flood victims. With health clinics badly damaged by floodwaters, resulting in loss of drug stocks, five community clinics in two of the counties - Penam and Khangma - will be rebuilt, all in a traditional Tibetan style. Essential drugs will also be provided. All benefitting a population of 35,000.

"The Swiss Red Cross has invested heavily in disaster preparedness and disaster relief for the local branches of the Tibet Red Cross over the years. This is the first relief operation on such a large scale for us and the close collaboration between ourselves is invaluable experience for future disaster relief management," says Philippe Dufourg, Swiss Red Cross Cross relief delegate in Shigatse.

The Swiss Red Cross first started working in Tibet in 1989 when invited to do so by the 10th Panchen Lama, making it the oldest international organisation working there. Until last year's floods, it has largely concentrated on programmes aimed at improving the health of rural communities through such activities as the training of rural health workers and eye care programmes.