Monday, January 18, 2010

The Essentials of Life: Ensuring a Safe and Secure Water Supply in Haiti

The recent earthquake in Haiti has people around the world reeling. On the news, there’s a constant flow of the sounds and pictures of a people devastated by poverty, then devastated again by a natural disaster. My thoughts go out to the young woman who we sponsored in Haiti until last year, when she graduated. I have no idea if she is all right, just as so many people have no idea if those they care for are all right.

The situation in Haiti is deeply troubling. When people live in an earthquake zone, it’s essential to build in places that are safe, with materials that can withstand a quake. Yet this is so out of reach in many places in the world, where people are struggling to create a daily life that is secure.

I think about my earthquake kit and my pantry. The earthquake kit is tucked under our front porch. It’s full of food and water for the seventy-two hours estimated before help reaches us. We’re lucky here. Unlike many people in Vancouver, we live on bedrock. Like many people in Vancouver, we also live in a wood-frame building. And like many, we have the extra few dollars available to secure a safe supply of water.

Water is life, and we cannot go without water for more than a few days. Unfortunately, tainted water is the reality for many people around the world. This water might be contaminated by animal and human waste, pesticides, or fertilizers. It’s not always economically feasible for people to make this water safe to drink, so the water is used anyway, in spite of the danger. Illnesses like diarrhea and cholera can ensue. While those in countries with safer drinking water might scoff at the idea that diarrhea is a danger, it is a disease that kills up to one and a half million children under the age of five every year.

In an emergency, the situation becomes even more difficult. Garbage and sewage line the streets and enter the water supply, and methods of water purification like boiling can be totally unavailable. Importing emergency water is expensive and bulky. There are a few promising solutions. Desalination, particularly if it is solar-powered, is a possibility, although it does require equipment. Water purification tablets are also readily available and much easier to ship than bottled water.

One of my favorite emerging technologies is the Lifestraw, a giant straw that is also a personal portable water filter. Each straw can be used for six months to a year and removes bacteria, viruses, and parasites – at least 99 percent of them. Although the Lifestraw is not a long-term solution because it does not improve overall water quality or reduce the trips to get water, it seems very promising for emergency applications like the situation in Haiti.

What are you doing to help in both the short term and long term in Haiti?

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