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Spring of hope: EPES provides emergency water to earthquake survivors

March 10, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES)  </span>
    EPES staff member Maria Stella Toro and a neighborhood woman help distribute water from the EPES well in earthquake-stricken Concepcion. Photo: Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES)
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES)  </span>
    Sign at EPES water distribution point : "DRINKING WATER: Elderly, ill, nursing infants, nursing mothers and pregnant women. ONLY CLEAN BOTTLES WITH CAPS. From 10 am to 12 pm." Photo: Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES)

Within 24 hours of the quake — and still unable to locate several of its staff members— the center of Educacion Popular en Salud (or EPES, Mercy Corps' local partner in Chile) in Concepción was in action, distributing water to its neighbors in the René Schneider section of Haulpén, a earthquake-shattered city located between Concepción and the Talcahuano port.

EPES Concepción director Dr. Lautauro Lopez was the first to recall that the EPES building, built in 2006, draws its water from a well and a water main that could be accessed with an electric pump. Through immediate coordination with the municipality of Hualpén (whose offices had just been looted), EPES was given temporary use of the municipality’s emergency portable generator.

As the water started to flow, the mounting tension and despair gave way to an improvised but efficient community-led distribution system to supply some 300 families (nearly 1,200 people) with water from the EPES well. The untreated water was not safe for drinking, but instructions from the EPES team helped guarantee that neighbors would use it safely until an emergency water purification system could be put into place.

With the first rays of daylight, at 6 a.m., neighbors began to line up to assure their place in the distribution line. Pumping began at 9 a.m. and lasted until dusk. While some neighbors organized the numbers for a fair and orderly wait, other pumped water and filled buckets, canisters and bottles.

Within days, a team from EPES Santiago had reached Concepción as part of a caravan with the newly-formed Inter-Church Emergency Committee, Chile 2010 — created to respond to the crisis — with medicines and its own generator, which kept the pump running until electricity was restored and throughout continual power outages.

“You’ve been an enormous help to us,” says Mario, a neighbor waiting in line for his family’s water ration. “We are four families living allegados (without a home of his own) in my mother-in-law’s house: me, my wife, my two sisters-in-law and all our children. We would have had to go as far as Laguna Redonda (a small lake on the outskirts of Haulpén) to bring water.”

On Friday, EPES received a visit from a emergency relief specialists bearing a portable water filter sent by GlobalMedic, a Canadian organization that had reached Concepción right after the quake and had learned about the EPES makeshift water distribution through a member of the Inter-church Committee.

GlobalMedic staff members Dan Malka and Matt Capobianco trained the EPES team to use the water filter, which it donated to EPES, and instructed them on other, chemical alternatives for purifying water. The filter cleans up to four liters a minute, a much smaller amount than the 40 liters a minute being pumped untreated from the EPES well. A dual distribution system was devised to supply safe water for drinking.

As of yesterday, EPES was providing safe water between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. to pregnant women, nursing mothers, the elderly, people with disabilities and special health conditions — all identified in advance by the neighborhood health promoters.

“Access to potable water is so important,” says Nadia Pardo, standing in line with her water jug to get water for her family, including her elderly father. “All the places to buy bottled water are closed, and if there was somewhere to buy it, it would be way too expensive.”

But mid-week, municipal water services should be restored and new challenges — including sewage treatment, clean-up and rebuilding lives and hopes — will begin.