TACLOBAN, Philippines – Since the typhoon hit, Danny Estember has been hiking three hours round-trip into the mountains each day to obtain what he can only hope is clean water for his five daughters and two sons.
The exhausting journey is necessary because safe water is desperately scarce in this storm-ravaged portion of the Philippines. Without it, people struggling to rebuild and even survive risk catching intestinal and other diseases that can spread if they’re unable to wash properly.
While aid agencies work to provide a steady supply, survivors have resorted to scooping from streams, catching rainwater in buckets and smashing open pipes to obtain what is left from disabled pumping stations. With at least 600,000 people homeless, the demand is massive.
“I’m thirsty and hungry. I’m worried – no food, no house, no water, no money,” said Estember, a 50-year-old ambulance driver.
Thousands of other people who sought shelter under the solid roof of the Tacloban City Astrodome also must improvise, taking water from wherever they can – a broken water pipe or a crumpled tarp. The water is salty and foul tasting but it is all many have had for days.
Providing clean, safe drinking water is key to preventing the toll of dead and injured from rising in the weeks after a major natural disaster. Not only do survivors need to stay hydrated, they also need to be protected from waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake was followed by a cholera outbreak that health officials say has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened nearly 600,000. Some studies have shown that cholera may have been introduced in Haiti by U.N. troops from Nepal, where the disease is endemic.
Washing regularly, using latrines and boiling drinking water are the best ways to avoid contracting diarrhea and other ailments that could burden already stressed health services.
It took several days for aid groups to bring large quantities of water to Tacloban, the eastern Philippine city where the typhoon wreaked its worst destruction. By Friday, tankers were arriving. Philippine Red Cross workers sluiced water into enormous plastic bladders attached to faucets from which people fill jerry cans, buckets, bottles and whatever other containers they might have.
Water provisioning should get a big boost with the recent arrival of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington, a virtual floating city with a distillation plant that can produce 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day.