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Restoring the flow

Indonesia, October 17, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Running water is still off in Padang, so Mercy Corps is helping the water company facilitate portable water solutions for earthquake-affected families. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

Electricity is back up and the cell phones are mostly working again — at least as well as they ever did — but there is still no running water in Padang city.

The earthquake on September 30 damaged both water sources and piping infrastructure, to the extent that the city water company has requested metal detectors so that they can find their pipes. While most of the wells in rural areas are still functioning, though they were messy for a while after the quake, in the city there are few wells and most of those are badly contaminated. In our office, where I have been living for the past two weeks with many of our staff, we have water trucked in daily to fill up a plastic tank in the yard, and pump it into the bathroom water tank a few times a day (Indonesian bathrooms traditionally have a tiled tank from which water is scooped out to shower or wash with).

For most inhabitants of the city, it’s been bottled water or the river. Which, as the only source of water that’s still running, is also where people go to bathe, wash clothes and (not speculation, I saw this) defecate.

To try to fill the gap, the Padang public water company, with the help of Aetra — a private water company based in Java — has been trucking water to tanks or bladders throughout the city. This water also comes from the river, but via a reverse-osmosis treatment plant operated by the Australian military as part of their relief effort (and, eventually, going back to Australia). The cost of the trucking is huge, and fast decimating the budget of the water company as they simultaneously dig ditches all over the city in hope of finding their pipes (they do seem to have SOME idea of where they are).

To support this effort, and the needs of urban Sumatrans with no recourse to safe water, Mercy Corps is helping the trucking through a voucher system for their fuel. Yesterday, I took a ride with one of the trucks to see how the system worked.

The truck was driven by an Aetra employee, Fahruddin, who was accompanied by an employee from the local water company, Risman, to help direct him through the Padang streets. Fahruddin told me he was happy to have come from his home in Java to help the relief effort for the earthquake.

“It’s normal, right?” he said. “Everyone wants to help.”

They pulled the truck up in a narrow residential street, and jumped out to attach the hoses to a water bladder sitting, mostly deflated, in someone’s front lawn. Risman pulled out a tap stand, a sawhorse made of pipes that distributed the flow to eight different taps, so that more people could collect the water at once. As soon as the truck had pulled up, a two women and a small child had walked over to sit waiting opposite the bladder, with five empty gallon containers. As the men fiddled with the pipes, more people came down the street, carrying buckets or barrels, one with a wheelbarrow to carry it back.

Once the water was flowing, every tap was in use, the water flowing into the containers. A man came on a motor bike and took away two of the filled gallon containers, and the woman switched in empty ones.

As the water ran, I looked around. It was not a very poor neighborhood, but not a rich one either. The houses looked a bit worn. But they were well constructed and none of them showed much earthquake damage. But all these people had been without running water for over two weeks, and might be for longer still.

Despite the appearance of solidity, their way of life along the fault line was still fragile.