Water: Bringer of death, bringer of life

A wall of water caused the biggest natural disaster of 2004: now it is the turn of relief agencies and water professionals to make sure that 2005 does not see disease killing as many people as did that deadly wave.

As GWR went to press ten days after the Boxing Day tsunami/earthquake, the emphasis was less on the hundreds of thousands of people killed when the giant wave crashed onto the beaches of a dozen Indian Ocean nations as on the survivors: the bereaved, the orphaned, the five million homeless and the host of communities and countries at risk from the tsunami’s potential aftermath of poverty, starvation and disease.

The World Health Organization warned that the death toll could double if epidemics broke out in the affected countries. The water industry is doing its bit to combat further disaster from cholera, typhoid and infant diarrhea. The water giants – Suez, RWE-Thames and Veolia – have been joined by companies in both the private and public sectors in the delivery of vitally needed water purification equipment and, particularly in the early days of the crisis, of every kind of packaged water imaginable, from bottles to water bags. “In the long term, what’s critical is for these countries to have a sustainable supply of clean water” Ooi Lin Kahm, deputy director of Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, told GWR. His company backed up such words with actions, dispatching portable desalination units to three of the most stricken countries: Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

“Potable water, shelter, healthcare are the main requirements” declared Stephanie Bunker of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as she outlined the priorities of the UN’s $977 million emergency programme to cover the first six months of relief and rehabilitation. Of this, $61 million is earmarked just for water, while $122 million goes for health care, and $110 million for infrastructure. In Geneva, UN medical authorities commented on the dangers to which relief workers were exposed, saying they faced a risk of contracting tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV, as well as gastro-intestinal infections and the major tropical diseases as a result of helping survivors and spoke of the need for a medical programme to last for many years. Reports on actual health conditions in the stricken areas were still sketchy as GWR went to press. In Indonesia, where around 100,000 people have died and where half a million people are reported homeless, the authorities predicted the survivors faced a second round of death from diseases caused by contaminated food and water. In Sri Lanka, where 30,000 were killed and a million are thought to have lost their homes, outbreaks of diarrhoea were reported during the opening days of January prompting health officials to warn of the possibility of widespread disease. A spokesman for Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, praising the international community for its aid response, specifically identified water-purification equipment as a pressing need.

In Thailand, Pollution Control Department chief Apichai Chavajaernpun said wastewater treatment facilities in some areas hit by the giant waves were damaged and out of order. In Patong municipality, the wastewater treatment plant was severely hit, forcing operations to halt. A municipality official said there was nobody available to repair the facility and that 10,000 cubic meters of wastewater had been released into canals and the Andaman Sea daily since the disaster. One positive aspect is that the water companies moved swiftly to provide practical on-the-ground assistance. The humanitarian organizations sponsored by the two French giants immediately sprang into action. Aquassistance, funded by Suez-Ondeo, immediately dispatched technicians and equipment to the region, as did Water Force, the humanitarian body funded by Veolia. Suez told GWR that the first job was to check for contamination and for damage to plant and installations. “It is essential to produce drinking water as quickly as possible,” the company said. A cluster of what Suez terms “mini drinking water plants” were being readied for delivery to the region on 6 January. “We have 12 tonnes of material prepared for this crisis. It’s all packed up and will be on the next plane,” a spokesman added. And was there a delay? “It’s taken a lot of time for local authorities to get organized to tell us where they need it, where local populations have been evacuated to,” they said.

Most of the Aquassistance activity is being focused on Aceh in Indonesia, where it will provide water facilities and technicians for a field hospital which the French government is setting up. A reconnaissance mission has been cooperating with local NGOs to set up emergency equipment supplied by Suez, including three of the group’s “aquashoc” machines, which can deliver between 1,000-5,000 litres of drinking water per hour for around 20 hours a day. With disaster victims usually requiring 10 liters per person per day for drinking and basic hygiene – and two liters a day as an absolute minimum – the group believes it can provide enough water for around 20,000 people.

Aquassistance is also preparing to set up mini water supply stations based on membrane technology which produce similar amounts of water but which use different filtration systems so that they can produce the kind of ultra-pure water required for hospital use. From Jakarta, where Suez manages one half of the city’s water concession, the company has dispatched a team of eleven engineers to Sumatra. Their goal is to help restore the water treatment plant and distribution network in Bandar Aceh but they will initially be based in Medan, where the group’s Degremont subsidiary has a BOT contract to set up a water treatment plant. “The first information we have is that the water plant is working at 25% of capacity, that it is not too damaged,” Suez told GWR. However, some 40% of the surrounding water distribution network is understood to have been destroyed. The company has also dispatched two mobile water tanks “so we can start providing water to more remote locations” as well as chemicals to get the plant working again and two pickup trucks carrying plastic reservoirs.

In addition to its unique global perspective, Global Water Report focuses on important regional issues, such as urban wastewater treatment, leakage control, water conservation and reuse, resource availability, sewage, sludge disposal, privatization, and sewer and mains rehabilitation in Europe, bench marking, storm water runoff and wet weather standards in the United States.

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