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The chronicles of "Chlorine Baba"

Pakistan, November 2, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Testing water quality frequently to assure quality, Iftikhar Khan, 22, Mercy Corps water quality assistant (at left) assists Munawar Abbas, Mercy Corps Water Quality Coordinator (foreground) as he tests chlorine levels at a water processing plant in Sukkur, in Pakistan's Sindh Province. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Water is aerated, increasing oxygen content, at a Mercy Corps water processing plant in Sukkur, in Pakistan's Sindh Province. Mercy Corps response teams mobilized quickly to provide clean water to flood relief camps. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Flooding of the Indus River caused Sardaran, 50, to flee her home of Shikarpur. She has spent one month in a flood relief camp in Sukkur, in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

Munawar Abbass is serious about water. Munawar is a Mercy Corps water coordinator, and he supervises a compact but complex water-processing plant that is keeping 8,000 flood survivors alive. He’s been at it for more than three months, first in the Swat Valley and now in Sindh Province.

This work makes Munawar extremely proud. He takes pains to explain the intricacies of the water process: first you pump ground water, next aerate the water to remove iron, then filter it to get rid of contaminants, add chlorine to kill any residual bacteria, store it in huge tanks and bladders, and finally truck the water to several area camps. The din of pumps and moving water is constant.

Thanks to the support of our corporate partner ITT, USAID and others, Munawar’s operation can pump out 80,000 liters of water per day.

Munawar’s particularly excited about the benefits of chlorination, which kills the bacteria that cause common water-borne ailments like diarrhea. He gleefully showed me how to test water for chlorine, and pulled out a ledger recording the chlorine levels of each batch of water that leaves the plant.

I mentioned Munawar’s laser focus on chlorine to a Pakistani colleague. “Oh yes,” she laughed waving her hand, “Munawar loves chlorine. In his previous Mercy Corps post, he was called the ‘Chlorine Baba’ (the affectionate term for a father figure) because he was always adding chlorine to the water in the office, always talking about it.”

But this isn’t theoretical chemistry; the Chlorine Baba has a point. Right after my tour of the water plant, I visited a camp where residents were receiving water from Mercy Corps. I met Sardaran, age 50, who like many people in this part of the country only goes by one name. Sardaran has been living in the camp for one month with seven family members. She picks up several liters of water a day from Mercy Corps.

Before coming to the camp, Sardaran and her family lived in a small roadside encampment. They obtained water from local taps and the quality was not very good. The family suffered ongoing bouts of diarrhea and stomach cramps. Now, she says, the water she receives at the camp is very good quality and they have had no resultant health problems.

It’s not difficult to figure out what’s different about water on the roadside and water in the camps — the Chlorine Baba was right!

I asked Munawar about his work with Mercy Corps. He first joined us to help run water operations after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, then came back in 2007 after floods rushed through Baluchistan, then returned in 2009 when thousands of families fled violence in Swat Valley, and now he’s working his magic again. We’re lucky to have him.

Munawar and a handful of water experts toil every day for at least 12 hours per day to keep the water pumping. He is quiet and humble, and hasn’t been home — a northern, mountainous region of Pakistan — in more than three months. I asked him how his wife feels about his long absence and he breaks into a smile.

“We talked about it, and I told her that I needed to help the flood victims," he explains. "This is just what I have to do, and she understands.”