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Haiti earthquake: providing safe water and basic sanitation

20-01-2010 Interview

Last week’s earthquake seriously disrupted Port-au-Prince’s water supply. Robert Mardini leads the water and habitat unit at ICRC headquarters in Geneva. He explains what the organization is doing to restore water supplies and provide sanitation facilities.

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/ht-e-00464    
  Earthquake victims who have set up camp outside the ICRC delegation receive drinking water. The ICRC is trucking the water in and transferring it to a storage bladder for distribution. 
Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC’s water and habitat unit 
     A cargo plane with 36 tonnes of goods, mostly water and sanitation equipment, left Geneva airport last night (19 January). What was it carrying and how will the equipment be used to provide clean drinking water?  

The ICRC has already set up a daily water supply by trucking water into three locations in Port-au-Prince. The number of people receiving safe water through this operation doubled from 6,000 on Monday to 12,000 by yesterday, Tuesday. The second batch of equipment that left Geneva tonight will enable our teams to double the quantity of water delivered. The equipment comprises water storage bladders, water tanks, pumps, generators, and chlorine to disinfect the water.

Water supply in Port-au-Prince was a critical issue before the earthquake. Now, with the public water network seriously damaged, we expect the problem to be far worse. Tens of thousands of people have gathered in open spaces with no access to safe water. The ICRC and other agencies have mobilized to help them.

The priority now is to provide safe water to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. The best way to do this will be to set up self-contained water storage and distribution systems at the locations where people are congregating, using the existing network wherever possible. This is a challenge, given the extent of the damage, the difficulty of moving around because of rubble, the shortage of fuel, the limited number of water tankers and the multiplicity of international and local organizations on the ground.

Access to safe water will quench thirst, improve hygiene and save lives.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 
  The ICRC is working closely with the Federation on water and sanitation.  

Two Federation water and sanitation emergency response units (ERUs) have arrived in Port-au-Prince and two mass sanitation ERUs have been deployed and are en-route. Already, the Spanish Red Cross is producing fresh water at a number of points across the city and Red Cross volunteers are distributing approximately 500,000 litres a day. This figure will soon rise to over one million litres a day.  

Eleven trucks provided by the Dominican Red Cross are getting the water out to where it is needed, and a series of 10,000-litre bladders have been set up to store the water.   For more information about the Federation's activities in Haiti, please see their website.    

 Sanitation is already a huge problem, especially in Port-au-Prince and other urban areas. What can the ICRC and other aid agencies do to tackle the problem? What will happen if sanitation does not improve soon?  

When large numbers of people suddenly come together in densely populated areas, there is a higher risk of transmitting diseases. There have been no epidemics so far, but urgent action is needed to prevent them. The ICRC has provided latrines in several areas where people are congregating and we are working with the Haitian Red Cross on waste collection, to keep these areas as clean as possible. The ICRC is particularly worried about towns outside Port-au-Prince that have received little or no assistance so far. Helping people outside Port-au-Prince is the next challenge for the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

 How can the ICRC and other aid agencies provide water for the thousands of people in the densely-populated urban areas of Haiti?  

Repairing Port-au-Prince’s public water network is the only measure that will ensure a sustainable water supply long-term. The network is complex and qualified personnel will have to prioritize problems on the ground and coordinate their response with CAMEP, the Haitian water utility.

A water specialist with 13 years’ experience of the Port-au-Prince water network left Geneva on 18 January to join our water and habitat team in Port-au-Prince. The team’s task will be to come up with effective and innovative solutions on the ground.

Repairing the public water network will be a huge project and coordination between agencies will be essential. The ICRC has a long history of working with local authorities and will continue to support their efforts in these critical times.

 Water distribution systems and health infrastructure have suffered heavy damage and repairing them is a top priority. How can the ICRC contribute to this?  

Materials and equipment alone will not solve the problem. What is important is to have the right people on the spot, which is why the ICRC sent a structural engineer to Port-au-Prince the day after the earthquake. He has assessed the condition of several buildings and proposed quick repairs where necessary. He examined Cité Soleil’s main water tower on 18 January and found that the structure had suffered major damage and that the tank was leaking badly. The ICRC is currently looking at how to repair the water system as quickly as possible.