Floods, Nutrition and Public Health

Floods account for 40% of the natural disasters that occur in developed and developing countries3. A major consequence of floods is the accompanying nutritional challenge to maintain public health1. While the nutritional management of flood-affected areas is a global challenge that has been researched by the World Health Organization (WHO), it seems to, nevertheless, hit hard when a region experiences it unprepared, and for the first time. I think of it, now,  because Chennai (formerly Madras) a coastal city in the south east of India where I was born and still have family and friends is being ravaged by floods in an unprecedented manner resulting in devastating loss of life and property.

The role of nutrition is critical in the relief, rehabilitation and development phase of managing flood-affected areas. While there are many biological, geographical, cultural, political and socio-economic variables of flood management, there are general nutritional guidelines that have been researched and outlined by the WHO. Of these guidelines two stand out the most:

1. The safety of drinking water:
The supply of drinking water has a high risk of being contaminated in flood affected areas. Safety of water can be ensured by either boiling water for a minute, and preferably longer or by treating it with a chloride agent at a specific concentration1.

The safety of drinking water is of relevance regardless of the extent to which someone may have been affected by the flood.

Just like drinking water, the risk of vegetables and fruits being contaminated may also be high. Hence well-cooked foods should be considered over raw and uncooked food2.

2. The importance of energy and protein:                                                                                      When access to food is limited, it is critically important to find the simplest and easiest method to obtain both energy-rich calories and protein. These considerations seem to bear particular significance when donating and preparing food for shelters, and specifically when addressing nutrition of pregnant and lactating women, infants and children, and the elderly.

Here are some examples:

Cereals like rice and millet mixed with pulses like dried beans (or lentils that are easier to cook) or groundnuts (that also have energy-rich fats) that are high in protein, provide basic energy requirements.

From the WHO:

“…disease outbreaks in disaster regions has the potential to claim as many lives as the disaster itself, and that safe water and food are the two main factors to prevent such outbreaks2.”


1. The management of nutrition in major emergencies, World Health Organization, Geneva 2000

2. Ensuring food safety in the aftermath of natural disasters, World Health Organization

3. Floods in south east Asia: a health priority by Jacqueline Torti in Journal of Global Health,   December 2012

I look forward to reading your thoughts...

  1. Dear Bala,
    This flood is not getting enough coverage because I didn’t hear about it in detail until I read your article.
    It must be difficult for you, more so because of your family and friends in this devastated area.
    Thinking of you,

    • Dear Mary,

      Yes, this flood hasn’t been getting enough coverage. After reading the WHO article I feel like this seems to be true for many other parts of the world that are affected by floods as well.

      Thank you for your thoughts.


  2. Dear Bala,
    i didn´t hear about this flood. Leptospirosis and hepatitis A are important health problems associated with floods.
    One major problem usually is gas supply to cook. So easily cooking starches like pasta and polenta (corn flour) are the ideal energy sources. Protein can be achieved from powdered milk or soy lyophilized proteín. Canned meat is also an emergency source of protein.

    • Dear José,

      You’re right, the WHO article included canned food, powdered protein and other easy to cook starches, I just mentioned a few examples that are more common in Chennai.

      Thank you for sharing.


  3. Dear Bala

    While we have spent the last ten days talking and witnessing the unimaginable disaster and ravage particularly experienced in chennai because of the floods. Your blog on food and nutrition is most appropriate in times like this.

    The current floods have left us in a state of shock. Statisticians say disaster of this magnitude had taken place over a 100 years ago in this region.

    One thing most positive and heartening is witnessing the city come together to help and not leaving it for the government machinery to handle the crisis.

    No sooner nature let out its fury the youth were on the road, networking on social media, helping rescue stranded people irrespective of the fact they were not family. They went about it very systematically, supplying the essentials, shifting homeless to shelters and providing clean water and nutritious food and offering medical facility in temporarily formed camps.

    We are still recovering from the devastation and not many have given thought to the outbreak of diseases that will take a higher toll on lives than the flood itself.

    Thanks for your tip on quick recipe for a wholesome meal in times like this. I will definitely share it with the groups known to me taking care of providing food in shelter homes. We too are doing our bit to people personally known to us and this will come in handy.

    Thanks again for reaching out in your own way.It is appreciated.

    • Dear Ms. Nirmala,

      It is very heartening to read about all the humanitarianism in Chennai in this trying time. I wish you and Chennai the very best for a quick and complete recovery from the floods.

      Thank you for taking the time to write.

      Take care and be safe,