When Daniel Gonikman arrived at the south Indian state of Kerala, three days after leaving his house in Mexico, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Sitting on a small raft pounded by a suffocating heat, all he saw was water: “I just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t anything a few days before.” said over the phone, “In all my years of humanitarian work, I’d never seen the destruction of that scope.”
Gonikman was the mission leader of CADENA International, a Jewish humanitarian agency based in Miami, tasked with bringing potable water to the population affected by the floods.
On August 15, 2018, unusually high rainfall caused the worst flooding in nearly a century. Originally a thick jungle ecosystem, the Kerala region is now increasingly vulnerable to flooding after man-made alterations to the environment have eroded the ground’s capacity to retain and filter water.
Last year the type-3 “Calamity” (as categorized by the local authorities) killed more than 400 people and displaced more than a million. In total, one-sixth of the state’s population was directly affected… all 14 districts of the state were on high alert.
“In that first mission we organized everything on our own: the government was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy” Vinod Varghese, director of Aaryoga Foundation, CADENA’s local partner in the region, said.
Varghese, the owner of an IT business in Trivandrum, was first contacted by CADENA through his friend, Elias Josephai, one of the last remaining Jews of the Kerala City of Kochi, where he volunteers as the keeper of the centuries-old Kadavumbagam Synagogue. Josephai had in turn been contacted by CADENA through a network of Jewish institutions.
Varghese talked about the flood in almost biblical terms: “nobody in our generation – or my parents’ or my grandparents’ had seen anything like this.”
Fifty 300-liter water tanks and 150 water filters were transported via canoes to Kandamkary and Thayamkari – small towns located in the Alleppey part of the Kuttanad District – where they were received by the local priest. Gonikman and other volunteers, who delivered the filters on September 2018, taught the population how to use those filters and how to maintain them.
Then, in November, the Kerala government issued another red alert, expressing concerns about lack of access to basic needs in the areas affected by the floods. After a series of bureaucratic complications, CADENA, in partnership with Airlink and Air Canada, was able to deliver another 300 more water filters this past February.
“This time we worked closely with the local government” Erika Glanz, Director of International Emergencies & Operations, told me during an interview, “they helped us channel the filters to institutions that needed it the most.” Besides visiting the community in Kochi and delivering water filters there, CADENA team members installed 300 hundred filters in 150 tanks of 200 liters’ capacity destined to preschools, including BUDS schools specialized for mentally challenged children, in the Haripad and Kanjikuzhy areas in Alappuzha district.
“These filters are very durable – and if taken good care of, they can last for over five years,” Glanz said. “This means that an approximate of 60,000 TO 75,000 people will have access to potable water, during the coming years.” The team also met with key players in local politics – like Mr. Shashi Tharoor member of parliament for Trivandrum; Additional Chief Secretary Dr. Vishwas Mehta – Government of Kerala and others – to discuss longer-term plans in the region.
As a follow-up, Varghese will perform water tests to ensure that the filters are providing the full benefits.
The Jewish community in Kochi acted as an important agent in this operation. CADENA – which has helped over 800,000 people in over 15 countries – relies strongly on the networks of the Jewish diaspora to implement large-impact projects. We are a nimble organization, but we’ve managed to reach far-flung places in Nepal, Puerto Rico and the border of Colombia with Venezuela because of our strong relationship with ISRAID and local Jewish communities.
As for Gonikman, he arrived back from that first mission just in time for Yom Kippur. “Fasting, after the jet-lag and the body exhaustion,” he told me, “was particularly hard.”