- Sara Fajardo and Kim Pozniak:
- Can you explain how a natural disaster disrupts water supplies?
- Paul Hicks:
Damage varies with the type of disaster, its intensity and scale. For example, the biggest concerns with a hurricane are flooding, landslides and the contamination of water supplies, whereas the concerns with an earthquake are damage to homes and buildings, as well as roads and other infrastructure—including water distribution systems. It's rare that an earthquake will directly contaminate water, but damage to water infrastructure can disrupt supply and increase the risk of contamination.
- How did this play out in the recent Haiti earthquake?
In a sense, Port-au-Prince is a microcosm of how water resources around the world are being stressed, especially in developing countries. Prior to the earthquake, there was virtually no regulation or control over the construction of roads and buildings, or where people built their houses. The city of Port-au-Prince has grown so rapidly, with so little planning or investments for infrastructure, that the water supply system did not keep pace with the demands. Slums in particular were not connected to the main water supply, so they relied on trucks to deliver water. People collected water directly from trucks with buckets, or paid to have cisterns filled, rather than having running water in their homes.
Urban sprawl and unmanaged development in and around Port-au-Prince have depleted the city's water resources. The aquifers are replenished with rain each year, but as concrete covers the hillsides and open spaces in the city, water cannot seep into the aquifers, and instead runs off rooftops, streets and concrete canals into the sea. Development over these aquifers also increases the risk of contaminating groundwater.
Similar problems threaten people all over the world. With climate change, many areas are becoming dryer, which makes it even more critical that use of water resources is planned and managed efficiently.
In an emergency, all of these factors are compounded.
- What are some of the main concerns when disaster strikes?
Our main concern is getting sufficient quantities of safe water to people very quickly. Going a few days without safe water can obviously be very dangerous—life-threatening.
- What are the first steps we take to get clean drinking water to people in an emergency?
It is critical to work with local government and other key players to identify safe water sources, and to use existing water treatment equipment as quickly as possible.
Even when people are displaced from their homes, they often know where or how to get water. Prior to the arrival of relief groups they have probably been collecting water on their own, even if it has been inadequate, so we want to start by assessing these sources to see how they can be improved. When existing water sources are inadequate or unsafe, we need to look for alternative sources and work with residents and government agencies to organize an improved delivery and distribution system.
In many cases, it can be as simple as providing larger and cleaner water containers to people. One of the biggest risks is the contamination of safe water after it has been delivered, especially when people collect and store water in dirty containers. So providing people with good-quality water containers is critical. Chlorine, or other treatment, is also essential.
- What are the risks of having large concentrations of people with no proper sanitation?
There are many health risks in the aftermath of an emergency: Diarrhea is common in crowded camps. Cholera is a serious concern because it spreads so quickly. When wastewater and stagnant water pools near shelters, mosquitoes will breed, which often results in a higher incidence of malaria or dengue fever.
Open defecation and the accumulation of waste and garbage are big concerns that should not be overlooked. Both attract flies and rodents that can spread disease. When people live in unsanitary conditions, one of the most important things we can do is to promote frequent hand-washing.
Right now, conditions in the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince are appalling—they were before the earthquake, and are worse now. But it's impressive to see how people in these areas manage to cope in such hard conditions. I walk into the camp where there is open defecation and garbage accumulating and I feel dirty, but the people in the camp manage to keep themselves relatively clean. Obviously, most people know proper hygiene techniques, but our job is to make sure that they have access to what they need to practice what they already know. We can do this by providing kits that include soap, toothbrushes and towels, and by ensuring that people have access to a water supply. We can also help by reinforcing good sanitation, especially for young children. For example, in Port-au-Prince, we have hired a graffiti artist to paint latrines and walls around camps with messages promoting good hygiene and sanitation.
Sanitation, in some regards, is also a gender issue. Women are usually primarily responsible for preparing food, collecting water, cleaning and caring for kids. In Haiti, we've found a high incidence of skin rashes and urinary tract infections among women, which is most likely a result of the difficulty of bathing and practicing proper hygiene. Living in crowded camps or on streets makes it difficult to bathe, and women can be at risk if they have to walk far to use toilets. Catholic Relief Services addressed this problem by building women's latrines a good distance away from men's latrines whenever possible and creating a 3-to-1 ratio of women's latrines to men's latrines. Experience has shown us that focusing our efforts on women means hygiene and sanitation for children and men will fall into place.
- Why is clearing rubble from city water canals a top priority?
The canals in Port-au-Prince are essentially open sewers and garbage dumps. As a result, every year canals are buried in mountains of garbage that need to be cleaned before the rainy season to mitigate the risk of flooding. However, this year the clearing of canals is much more critical because in addition to garbage, many of the canals are also full of earthquake rubble, which raises the risk of flooding. CRS is working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations to clear the canals in Solino, one of the five most vulnerable camps, and we are working with other agencies to assess and prioritize other canals for cleanup.
- What can we do to minimize damage from natural disasters?
What is clear from the earthquake in Haiti is that the country and the population were extremely vulnerable. Buildings were poorly constructed, in many cases built on unstable ground, often on steep hillsides, and without proper foundations. Concrete buildings lacked the steel needed to reinforce buildings. The earthquake was not extremely big relative to other recent earthquakes (for example, compared to Aceh, Pakistan and Chile). The poor state of infrastructure and urban development put Haiti at high risk, making a moderate-size earthquake one of the worst disasters in memory.
Strictly speaking, a natural event, like a hurricane or earthquake, is only a disaster when it hurts people and damages property. We can reduce the impacts of natural events on people, or reduce our vulnerability, by planning and anticipating likely events: in other words, by managing risk. For example, we can avoid building on steep hillsides or floodplains, and build structures that are less vulnerable to floods and earthquakes.
Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.
Paul Hicks is CRS' coordinator for the Global Water Initiative. He is based in El Salvador. Sara A. Fajardo is a CRS communications officer covering Latin America and the Caribbean. Kim Pozniak is a CRS communications officer covering U.S. Operations. Both are based in Baltimore, Maryland.