Not a drop to drink

Natural and unnatural disasters leave millions without clean water


A Sri Lankan Tamil family walks along a flooded road to a refugee camp in Batticoa. Reuters photo

December 26, 2004 will remain in the minds of many as the day the world was swept away by water. The 9.0 earthquake originating in the Indian Ocean sent waves to spill over shorelines in South and Southeast Asia and East Africa, carrying more than 220,000 people to an instant demise, and rendering another five million homeless. Hundreds of refugee camps have been set up all over the Indian Ocean basin in desperate efforts to meet the basic needs of those who survived.

The phrase “tsunami relief” was a trigger for folks to dig into their bank accounts and fork over whatever they could in a surge of collective philanthropy. Almost instantly, entire regions over three continents went into emergency mode, and to date, over $7 billion in donations has gone towards tsunami relief.

One of the most urgent issues emerging from the series of giant waves, ironically, is the sudden shortage of potable water. The Clinton Foundation and UNICEF set up a $45 million joint fund specifically for the provision of safe and clean water to tsunami victims, to slow down the inevitable spread of waterborne diseases as an aftermath of natural disaster. Water and sanitation advisors from NGOs and governments all over the world – headed by the British NGO Oxfam – are flooding into tsunami-affected regions in efforts to provide clean drinking water, build latrines, and rehabilitate water supply systems.

The tragedy brings to light an issue that determines the fate of millions of refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Waterborne diseases are a leading cause of death in much of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Every year, 1.8 million people die from diarrhea and cholera. Nine-tenths of them are children under the age of five, and many of these deaths could be prevented by simple improvements in water quality.

But the problem of water in refugee camps is not just a health issue. The location and availability of water also affects refugees’ safety, security, and integrity.

Drink it before it dries up

Oure Cassoni is home to 19,000 Sudanese who were forced out of their country into this camp in northern Chad. The residents of Oure Cassoni are lucky: Their camp is set up right on a lake, a seemingly unlimited source of treatable water for drinking, washing, and cooking. There are two big problems with the location of the camp, however. First of all, the lake is ephemeral, and dries out between rainy seasons. Second, with the intense bloody conflict raging in western Darfur, Oure Cassoni just isn’t quite far away enough to be a real refuge, only 10 miles away from the fighting.

The location and availability
of water affects refugees’ health,
safety, security, and integrity.

Access to clean and safe drinking water is a prime determinant not only of the livelihood of refugees living in camp situations, but often also of the camp locations themselves. Refugees must often move from place to place to find drinkable water, exposing them to further danger.

Theoretically, refugee camps are meant to be only temporary settlements, and the planning and materials that go into their construction are often inadequate for long-term use. Asylum-granting governments often don’t want refugees to be comfortable enough to settle in, or they establish camps out of the way of the people in the rest of the country, regardless of the sites’ access to water. In reality, refugee camps are not as temporary as intended. For close to 900,000 Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria, for example, refugee camp life has spanned generations, pretty much since 1948.

Water sources
Refugee camp residents can obtain water from four sources – rain, surface water, groundwater, and sea water. Ground water is the most reliable natural source of water for camps. Essentially, groundwater is rain and surface water that has been filtered through the ground and comes out of wells and springs, so it tends to be relatively safe, although it can certainly be contaminated with chemicals. Collected rainwater is a good source of water as well, provided it is collected safely and has not been contaminated. Surface water, or water from rivers and lakes, is likely to be contaminated and usually requires treatment before use. Sea water is the least useful source of water due to the expense of desalination and decontamination.

In extreme emergency situations, where there is not enough water from natural sources, chlorinated water can be trucked in by emergency relief organizations to meet the minimum standards of 7.5 liters/day per person.

There are things that individuals and families can do to treat their own water until a longer-term solution is provided. Straining water through a clean cotton cloth to filter out suspended solids; filtering through an aeration tray to increase oxygen content; 24-hour storage; charcoal, sand, or ceramic filters; chlorination; boiling; and solar disinfection are all ways in which polluted water sources can be made safer for drinking. Education of communities and aid workers in the field is essential.

Meanwhile, scientists and environmentalists have been working to find new solutions to water sanitation, and some revolutionary technologies have been developed.

UV Waterworks
Ashok Gadgil, inventor and scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, is a philanthropist and inventor whose commitment to making a difference radiates from his voice. Gadgil is the inventor of UV Waterworks, a low-cost, low-maintenance, energy-efficient solution to water decontamination. Using ultraviolet light, this device can purify up to four gallons of water per minute at the cost of two cents per 250 gallons, using only 40 watts of electricity – well within the generating capacity of a medium-sized solar panel.

The existence and availability of a device like UV Waterworks makes one wonder why its use isn’t more widespread. One UV Waterworks installation can provide 15 liters of drinking water each for 3,000 people per day. Three hundred UV Waterworks installations now serve 300,000 people in rural communities in Mexico, the Philippines and India, only a fraction of the device’s potential reach.

The most obvious obstacle to the more widespread use of UV Waterworks is that households must come together as a community to install the device. Water Health International, the manufacturer and distributor of Gadgil’s invention, currently advertises its product to tsunami relief groups at cost with free training and repairs, but even then each unit costs $10,000. While this amounts to only about $2 per person per year when the device is operating at capacity, it is virtually impossible to invest this kind of money in refugee camp situations with weak community cohesion and constant movement of residents.

Displaced Sudanese women carry water within Abu Shouk refugee camp in the northern Darfur region of Sudan.  Reuters photo
Displaced Sudanese women carry water within Abu Shouk refugee camp in the northern Darfur region of Sudan.
Reuters photo

Gadgil’s next mission is to find ways to remove arsenic from well water in Bangladesh, an issue already being addressed by researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute through yet another new technology. Professor Alexander van Geen and colleagues have devised a cell-phone based data system and a new device called the needle-sampler that will help them identify spots for building arsenic-free wells. While this research does not solve the problem of decontaminating water from pre-existing wells, it will help reduce the incidence of physical and neurological disabilities, and illnesses such as cancer, that plague the estimated 100 million people in rural South Asia who drink unsafe water. This technology could also be useful in refugee camp situations, where it would quickly and efficiently determine how to tap the safest aquifers.

In rural communities in Western Kenya, germicidal calcium hypochlorite tablets are being sold in sachets in rural communities to treat water with high turbidity (suspended solid content). The commercially available tablets remove solids and produce better-tasting water than chlorine tablets commonly used for disinfection, They will be used in tsunami-affected areas as well.

Ngara, Tanzania
In the weeks following April 29, 1994, as the Rwandan genocide began to reach its full force, 470,000 Rwandans crossed the southeastern border of their native land to seek refuge in northern Tanzania.

Desperate to accommodate the sudden influx of refugees, CARE and its NGO colleagues quickly built a camp. As thousands arrived, they built areas for people to live and a separate section of the camp designated for latrines, which were built in blocks.

This arrangement, while seemingly practical for environmental and health reasons, posed unexpected security problems for the women in the camp. Women in the camp were sexually assaulted when commuting to the isolated, badly lit latrines far away from the housing units and completely lacking in privacy. As the latrines were communal and no one in the camp took responsibility for their maintenance, they also ended up being badly kept and unsanitary. While exact numbers cannot be speculated, the incidences of rape and sexual harassment at the latrines were high enough that construction of a redesigned second camp followed.

The problem of refugees being raped and assaulted on their way to latrines, to gather firewood, or to collect water from wells far away from camp housing units is immediate and real. It is a well-reported yet often overlooked fact that refugee camps are particularly conducive environments for sexual assault due to the lack of security infrastructure. There have already been numerous accounts of rapes in post-tsunami refugee camps.

In creating the second camp, latrines were created in each home unit to ensure privacy and proper maintenance. Aid workers emphasized the need to work with the refugee community in proposing and implementing ideas for waste disposal and water handling. As defecation and cleaning practices vary from culture to culture, the dialogue ensured that the new setup was culturally acceptable.

Setting standards
While cultural and social sensitivity is a crucial aspect of effective camp maintenance, a certain standard of operation and maintenance must be established in order to guarantee a degree of order and public health.

Responding to this need, the Sphere Project began in 1997 as a collaborative effort of NGOs, UN agencies, and academics to come up with what they called the “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.” The Sphere Project established a code of conduct for organizations operating in the field, and encouraged respect for the rights of individuals living under emergency conditions.

Afghan children collect water at a refugee camp near Multan. -Reuters photo
Afghan children collect water at a refugee camp near Multan.
Reuters photo

The Sphere standards recognize that: “Water is essential for life, health and human dignity… In most cases, the main health problems are caused by poor hygiene due to inefficient water distribution and by the consumption of contaminated water.” The standards mandate that “All people have safe and equitable access to a sufficient quantity of water for drinking, cooking, and personal and domestic hygiene.” Sphere also addresses issues such as the amount of water that should be available per person per day (15 liters) and the maximum distance from any household to the nearest water point (500 meters).

The establishment of common guidelines under Sphere is revolutionary, but whether this guarantees universal compliance to best practices in refugee camps is questionable. Compliance to the Sphere Standards is monitored and enforced only to the extent that the agencies operating on the ground are willing and able to do so. “Coordination is a continuing issue for all organizations working in emergencies,” affirms Peter Lochery, Senior Advisor of Water, Sanitation and Environmental Health at CARE. Lochery points out that while there is no external monitoring mechanism for compliance to the Sphere Standards, organizations rarely work independently, and peer pressure tends to keep them in line. When asked whether all the organizations are responding to the required standards, Lochery replied, “I don’t know.”

The problem with saltwater
On the beautiful Maldive islands, residents depend mainly on fresh groundwater from the sparse limestone aquifers on which they live. Today, saltwater intrusion from the tsunami has rendered many of these reservoirs useless. Given these dire circumstances, water experts presume that the most practical means of survival for Maldivians would be to leave the islands and resettle in a place with greater access to water and aid. Hence, in the short term, the people of Maldives may have to become environmental refugees, chased out of their land not by political unrest but by elementary survival needs.

Take action: For more information about CARE’s water and
sanitation projects, including refugee work, visit
. Donations are accepted online.

Perhaps the greatest drinking-water-related challenge brought about by the tsunami is desalination. Most existing water treatment devices, including UV Waterworks, cannot desalinate salt water, and are therefore useless in treating the wells and boreholes that have been flooded with water from the Indian Ocean. Only a handful of wealthy, mostly oil-producing countries are able to rely on sea water as a source of drinking water.

Right now, countless water sources in all tsunami-affected areas have been contaminated with salt water, and experts around the world are scraping for ideas on how to best restore drinking water supplies. The removal of salt from the enormous amount of water contaminated by the tsunami will be done only “with great difficulty,” Lochery admits. The long-term survival of not just people but entire cultures may depend on a solution.

Lisa Katayama is a former Earth Island Journal intern.

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