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Testing the Waters in Postflood Philippines

By Jennifer Hardy

Torrential rains of Tropical Storm Washi sent water cascading down the Cagayan de Oro River in the southern Philippines, bringing chaos and destruction in a matter of hours. After the flood subsided, water presented a new problem: how to supply clean water to flood survivors as they flocked to evacuation and relocation sites in Mindanao, a city largely without running water.

Bebing Gabutan with water samples

Bebing Gabutan, a midwife at an evacuation center in the southern Philippines, says a CRS bottle-testing system helps her distinguish between contaminated and safe water. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

Bebing Gabutan, a midwife and medical caregiver at the evacuation center in the town of Macasandig, needs every tool available to help keep people healthy in the crowded center. She said that clean water is most important, though, "because with bad water, everyone can become very sick at the same time."

CRS Philippines, which is providing tanks and water to people affected by Cagayan de Oro's flash floods in December, helps with several levels of testing to ensure that water labeled for drinking is truly safe.

The simplest test requires a camp leader to collect a water sample in a small, clear bottle. The bottle contains a piece of tissue paper soaked with a mix of chemicals that will react to contaminated water. Water that turns black in 24 hours indicates it has some level of contamination and requires further testing.

Bebing sees the bottles as a way to show her clients why it is important to drink only water labeled safe for drinking.

Girl at relocation center carrying water

A young girl carries water at a relocation center in the Philippines. A medical caregiver in the region says that, with the CRS-supplied 24-hour water test, "I can let people see with their own eyes which water to use for drinking."

"The first time I saw the bottle turn black with my own eyes, I was afraid," says Bebing. "I saw the black water and knew I could get very sick. Before, it was hard to describe complicated water testing results with the many clients we see each day. Now, instead of telling people they should drink from some containers and not others, we can clearly show them a reason why."

Declan Hearne, a water and sanitation consultant for CRS on the emergency, finds the tests beneficial in helping people understand the importance of safe water. "The great thing about this test is that it's a first indicator if something is wrong with the water," says Hearne. "When people see the sample turn black, they can request further testing to find out just how contaminated the water is and what is causing the problem."

The test is simple and affordable. CRS teaches camp leaders and health workers how to collect the water sample, how long to wait for a potential reaction, and what to do if the sample turns black.

"This is something we can take care of ourselves, and we can see the results and share with our neighbors. It will also give us something to show officials as a reason why we are asking for more testing," says Angelia Soria, a leader at Mandumol, a relocation site for flood survivors.

Getting water to people immediately after an emergency is important, but ensuring the long-term safety of the water supply is critical. This simple bottle testing system, managed by community leaders at each distribution site, is one more way CRS is supporting flash flood survivors as they help each other through the next months of recovery.

Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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