Yesterday I spoke with Mugur Dumitrache, Mercy Corps' water and sanitation expert. Mugur is one of eight expert emergency responders who left for Haiti this week to help earthquake survivors. Mugur’s been in this kind of situation many times before, most recently when traveled to the Sumatra region of Indonesia after last fall’s earthquake.
But post-earthquake Haiti sounds even tougher than places he’s been before — everything from power to food to modes of communication is almost impossible to find. During our talk, Mugur told me what he considers to be the number one priority for quake survivors: water.
“Most people can live without water for only three or four days, but the sick, children and the elderly don’t even have that much time,” Mugur said. “Getting as much water as possible to people as quickly as possible is the number one priority.”
Lack of clean water for drinking and washing can lead to the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, cholera and hepatitis — all of which can be deadly in a post-disaster setting. The risk of disease is exacerbated by a lack of basic sanitation services like sewers, latrines and garbage collection. “You wind up with people dying not only of critical injuries, but very preventable diseases,” he explained.
Mugur oversaw the implementation of innovative water and sanitation systems after disasters such as the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar and last year’s earthquake in the Sumatra region of Indonesia. He stressed that providing water to earthquake survivors can be a tough task that includes finding water sources, purchasing trucks and tanks, hiring staff, and purifying and chlorinating large quantities of water. If trucks cannot move through an area, alternative water sources such as wells have to be found.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed this week that Port-au-Prince’s water supply system had been cut off.
Filling the need for clean water is just one of the activities that Mercy Corps will undertake in Haiti. In addition to filling survivors’ immediate needs, we plan to help revitalize the local economy through cash-for-work programs and facilitate children’s recovery from the psychological trauma.
I wish Mugur and the rest of the team all the best as they arrive in Haiti. The challenges they face are enormous, but if any crew can make a difference, it’s this one.