In the wake of typhoon's destruction, getting water running again
By Marissa Aroy and Margaretha Francia
For one UNICEF staff member assessing the damage of Typhoon Haiyan, restoring access to water for families in Tacloban was a more immediate priority.
TACLOBAN, Philippines, 18 November 2013 – “We arrived in Tacloban just three days after Typhoon Yolanda made landfall. I've seen typhoons before, but I was in shock at the devastation I saw,” says Dr. Michael Emerson Gnilo. “Everything was gone.”
Dr. Gnilo, a Specialist for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), was one of the first UNICEF staff members to reach the area after the destruction of Typhoon Yolanda. He began his work in Tacloban by identifying sources of safe water for drinking, and promoting good hygiene practices to prevent the spread of disease.
“I was supposed to be doing an assessment but realized that we needed to respond to the needs of the emergency,” says Dr. Gnilo.
What he saw was the dire situation facing children and their families. Some people took cover in tents to defecate and threw the waste outside amid the debris. Some were waiting in long queues to collect water from broken pipes. People took baths in rainwater. Children and adults alike were suffering from diarrhea brought on by drinking unclean water.
“I met a mother feeding powdered milk mixed with unsafe water to her month-old twins. They were visibly malnourished,” Dr. Gnilo says. “I reassured her that she can just breastfeed her baby instead of feeding them powdered milk, and they would be okay.”
Children bathe and wash their clothes after running water was restored in Tacloban. During the typhoon, the city’s main water system remained intact, but without an adequate fuel supply, its running capacity was limited. © UNICEF Philippines/2013/THozumi
Access to clean water is critical to prevent diarrhoea and other water-borne illnesses. It also helps typhoon survivors to cook, clean, maintain good hygiene – and begin to recover.
By day four following the typhoon, the water system needed refueling – but local gas stations were damaged, there was a bottleneck getting supplies to the island, and no one had the means to transport fuel.
Dr. Gnilo and other WASH colleagues worked with the Leyte Metropolitan Water District and the Philippines Armed Forces and National Police to get emergency fuel to run the water treatment plant.
By the evening of 15 November, water was again flowing into Tacloban City and several surrounding municipalities. Two days later, the water system was providing drinkable water to roughly 276,000 people – about 80 per cent of the population. Children and their families could be seen enjoying the steady supply of water, taking baths and washing clothes.
UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi noted the importance of restoring the water supply. "It's critical at the time of emergency that one maintains at least 15 liters of clean drinking water per day for each individual to prevent diarrhea and other water borne diseases,” he said. “A steady supply of water also means that those affected can cook, clean and maintain good hygiene practices, and start them on the way to recovery and rebuilding.”
The fuel needed over the next few weeks will be provided by USAID until electricity has been restored. UNICEF will provide a backup generator for the water treatment plant and is working with partners to repair water lines damaged by the typhoon.
“We were able to restore the water supply in Tacloban, but the job isn't finished. We still need to get safe water to the hinterlands, says Dr. Gnilo. “We still need to address access to toilet facilities and soap for handwashing and bathing. Access to these things is fundamental not because it prevents disease, but it will allow for maintaining children's security, safety and most of all their dignity.”