Struggle for a healthy life: Urban children perspective
Mutyamamba Colony can be reached from the road along Chakali Gedda, a big open drain, where children can be seen playing near dirt piled along the drain. Nine-year-old Pallavi often spends her evenings rummaging in the filth, digging for shiny new playthings. She lives here in this colony, an urban slum of Visakhapatnam located adjacent to a railway track, and to an overflowing sewer.
Home to a rapid influx of migrants mostly from north coastal Andhra, colonies such as these have earned Visakhapatnam the tag of `City of Destiny’. The city’s administration, however, has been fumbling with the task of handling such a large-scale influx and providing them basic shelter and decent means of livelihood. Situated in ward number 43 of Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC), Mutyamamba is one of the 741 slums that have sprung up in the city.
Most of the houses in the colony are kuccha, simple tin sheds with asbestos roofs. Cyclone Hudhud shook up these temporary structures; gale winds i damaged the slum settlements, disrupted power and food supply and inundated GVMC’s water supply pipelines and hand pumps, key sources of drinking water for the slum settlement. Not that things were any better before, especially with regard to water-borne diseases. Data from the Integrated Disease Surveillance Program (2014) reveals that 22 per cent of the total diagnosed patients in outpatient departments, suffered from water-borne diseases in Visakhapatnam city.ii
Pallavi lives here in the locality, home to more than 250 households of daily wage labourers, flower and local snack vendors. Both male and female members of the family work to earn a living; some employed by GVMC as vacuum truck operators or de-sludging operators. A considerable section of this slum comprises of inter-district schedule tribe migrants who have migrated from the neighbouring districts of Srikakulam and Vizianagaram. Working hard to make ends meet, they live in an unhygienic environment, and face lack of safe water supply and a clean environment for their children to play in.
There is no proper drainage system, and it is a daily struggle to get safe water from the communal pipelines or hand pumps in their locality. When stormwater flows through the sewer-less slum, severe waterlogging problems arise, inundating the local water supplies. It worsens during heavy rains when the drain outside overflows and floods their homes.
Pallavi who is a third standard student in a GVMC school, lives in a small tin shed house of barely 40 yards, along with her four younger siblings and parents, who are daily wage labourers. Nagamma, her mother, speaks softly “After coming back from school, the children play near the gedda, what other place is there? During rains, even this area is lost to them.”
Many families with around 7 to 15 members live in such houses, made of tin sheds highly vulnerable to winds and heat. Living in a hazard prone area they bear the direct and indirect impacts of climate change. During cyclone Hudhud, these tin sheds were blown away by the high velocity winds and the area remained waterlogged for 2-3 days. There was nothing to eat for two days then.
Unhygienic surroundings, problems of water quality and quantity, lack of proper drainage and waterlogging during and after rainfall, worsen the living conditions. “My family and friends fall ill often. We are down with fever, typhoid or diarrhoea, more so after the rains,” Pallavi explains with disquiet.
Scant WASH infrastructure in the colony
A major problem for the residents is the availability and the quality of the water supplied to their homes. Water supply in the GVMC taps outside their houses is just for an hour a day and that too early in the morning between 3-4 am. Bottles, paint containers, cans, aluminium utensils, buckets, anything and everything is used to collect water to be eventually stored in the big blue plastic tank outside the house. This water is then used for bathing as well as drinking purposes. Most residents thus often rely upon the few hand pumps that offer stinky, contaminated water, thanks to the existing inadequate drainage, waterlogging and insanitary conditions. Mosquito-borne diseases and water-borne infections are very common during October-November when the north-east monsoon hits the city and waterlogging occurs in this locality. The filthy environment attracts pigs and dogs, a menace to the children here and incidents of dogs attacking children are not uncommon.
In monsoon season the pipelines ooze out red muddy water. “A proper drainage system is missing here. Small drains outside our houses can only carry the daily waste water. When it rains, these get clogged and dirty water spills everywhere. Both the supply taps and hand pumps get inundated,” says Raghamma, a 27-year old woman, living in the colony.
When the taps become inundated, it is an everyday struggle to extract water from them. Many a times a pipe is used to suck water from them, but mixing of fresh water and drain water occurs often when this happens. “I store this collected water in a tank kept outside the houses. I am not sure of the water quality, but what other choice do I have? So I simply boil and filter that water, most here don’t even do that,” explains Raghamma further.
”There is no space to construct toilets in our small households; and the community toilets are insufficient for the large number of people living here. Moreover, those toilets are mostly filthy and often face water shortages. Women suffer more, sometimes we defecate in the open nearby vacant land, which is dirty and stinks during heavy rains. The younger children defecate out in the open drains directly,” talks Ramanamma, a 35-year old woman. She adds, “Children often fall into the drains, there is so much water and filth everywhere. So we are burdened with extra cleaning duties, care of children who fall sick more often along with our daily labour activities for livelihoods, adding to our heavy workload. “
Most women agree that waterlogging, heat waves, storms and cyclones are the major hazards that impact the well-being of their children. Changes in the weather pattern have been observed. As Ramanamma says “Heat stress is increasing day by day. Our tin shed houses turn into a furnace in the summers, and we are forced to sleep outside at night along with the children. And in the post monsoon period, one gets even more rain.”
Changing climate pattern, with the existing inadequate WASH infrastructure will only make the locality more vulnerable to climatic disasters in the future. But things are looking up; some of the GVMC’s good practices identified by the community include:
- Post Cyclone Hudhud, GVMC supported the community by providing support for reconstruction of their tin shed houses.
- The Public Health Department of GVMC educates them regularly on the importance of keeping the surroundings clean and not allowing water to stagnate.
- After past incidences of malaria, health checkups are conducted once a month. They are provided mobile medical facilities, and blood samples are collected for testing. The open channel drains are cleaned by sanitation workers.
“As per the government instructions, we de-silt the nearby Chakali Gedda prior to the monsoon to prevent waterlogging. Eliminating unhygienic practices from this area is also a behavioural issue. The community should discourage the children from playing near the Gedda. The residents need to be more careful and avoid any stagnation of water in their households as well as surroundings. We also conduct awareness and medical camps in case of severely inundated areas to prevent the outbreak of diseases,” explains Mr MVV Murali Mohan, Assistant Medical Officer Health, Zone 4, GVMC, talking on the way forward here.
Path to resilience and good health
Some other options that can pave the way to better health for the urban children include:
- Upgrade water supply infrastructure to reduce the practice of storing water and un-hygienic usage, which in turn will eventually reduce cases of water-borne diseases.
- Improve drainage and sewerage system of this low lying area so that the outbreak of diseases such as malaria and gastrointestinal diseases due to consumption of polluted water can be prevented.
- Repair existing water supply infrastructure to resolve issues of high turbidity and muddy water.
- Implement NTR Sujala Pathakam scheme of GoAP here, as a long term investment to provide safe drinking water to the community
- Create awareness on hygiene practices to protect children against illness and disease transmission
- Carry on recurrent health check-up camps in the locality
- More frequent implementation of preventive measures for malaria and dengue such as the use of chemicals in the drains, fogging and spraying in households
- Pay attention to water facilities in the community toilets
- Create safe play areas/parks for their children
- Reap benefits of housing schemes of GoAP like NTR Urban Housing Scheme for weaker sections of the society by Andhra Pradesh State Housing Corporation, PMAY etc.
This is the 5th and final field story captured by GEAG during the children-focused vulnerability assessment in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. It is a part of the UNICEF India supported project titled ‘Building climate change and disaster resilience for urban children’.