Safe water: essential for all, available to a few
Hope reignites among flood-affected families after months without safe drinking water
Rajanpur district, Punjab: “There was water as far as my eyes could see. But we did not have any to drink,” says Mehreen. The 12-years-old is the youngest in her family.
Six months ago, the raging floods swallowed her entire village, leaving her family and nearly 450 other families homeless, hungry and grappling to survive.
Mehreen lives in Chitool, located in Rajanpur district. The district was the hardest hit by the floods in all of Punjab province.
With her house now underwater, Mehreen, along with her parents and four siblings, lived in makeshift shelters on the embankment of a road. Most roads were washed away by the floods, cutting off the village from receiving any relief for weeks.
“It was hot, humid and scary, especially at night. We had little food and no water to drink. My mother would filter dirty floodwater through a cloth and then heat it on wood fire. We would drink a little after it cooled but knew that it was still not safe.”
Each day, men in the village waded through neck-deep waters to salvage any food left in the village. The only water handpump in the village was destroyed.
“It was a nightmare we relived every day. I hope we never have floods again.”
Communities in Rajanpur were among the most deprived and scattered populations in Pakistan. Most families have historically worked as farm help or as daily-wage labourers.
The district was facing an acute safe drinking water shortage even before the floods. Most communities relied on ground water which was unsafe and salty in taste. The water woes were further exacerbated by the floods after handpumps and waterlines were completely destroyed. District authorities had installed water supply systems to supply safe drinking water. Unfortunately, the water supplied was never enough to quench everyone’s thirst.
Unsafe water and poor sanitation are key underlying causes of malnutrition. In Rajanpur and other flood-affected areas, children are now caught in a vicious cycle of diseases and deaths from a lack of safe drinking water, rising malnutrition and improper sanitation. 6 months after the floods, more than 1.5 million boys and girls are severely malnourished, and the numbers will only rise in the absence of safe water and proper sanitation.
After many weeks, flood water finally receded, allowing government authorities, UNICEF, and other relief agencies to come to help Mehreen and her community.
“UNICEF started providing drinking water through water tankers as soon as the roads were cleared,” says Muhammad Tufail Khan, Emergency Specialist at UNICEF Pakistan.
6-months after the floods, the families have since moved back into the village. However, they are still struggling to rebuild their houses and living in tents next to the rubble. Meanwhile, UNICEF has already rebuilt the nearby damaged water supply system and numerous handpumps and is laying new pipes to bring safe drinking water to every household. The damaged handpump and pipelines in Chitool will be repaired soon, but in the meantime Mehreen and others are able to ferry water from the taps in the next village.
“The new handpump is only a few paces from my house. I can fetch water easily now,” says Mehreen.
The restoration of safe drinking water supply systems in Rajanpur is a partnership between UNICEF and the Government of Pakistan.
“The old water supply systems were all powered by electricity. The rural communities found it difficult to pay the high electricity bills. Many such systems were therefore abandoned and locals switched to using untreated groundwater,” explains Rauf Sumbal, Community Development Officer at Housing Urban Development & Public Health Engineering Department, Government of Punjab. “The new water supply systems built by UNICEF use solar energy to power the water pumps. This will lift a huge economic burden off communities who previously struggled to pay their electricity bills.
Pakistan remains a disaster flashpoint, and preparedness is crucial before another large-scale climate disaster strikes the country’s children. The new water systems and handpumps have been built on elevated grounds to protect them from future floods. Even the solar panels are installed on pillars to protect them in case of future flooding.
The restored safe water system has the locals jubilant. Women and children feel particularly relieved as often they are the ones responsible for fetching water for the household.
“Me and my cousins go to the pump together to fill up our buckets. We get as much as we want. It is clean and sweet”, Mehreen says while smiling.
Funds provided by the Government and people of Japan to support UNICEF’s humanitarian assistance for the flood affected population are being used In Rajanpur to rebuild or restore 39 damaged water supply systems, 45 small scale solar-powered water supply systems and 20 solar-powered water filtration plants. In addition, 10 Surface Water Treatment Ponds are being developed and 200 community handpumps damaged during the floods have been restored.
The progress made so far in restoring water supply progress is already benefiting 100,000 people. Once all restoration is completed, over 300,000 people in the flood-affected communities in Rajanpur will have access to safe drinking water.