Clean water flows into Tacloban

TACLOBAN CITY - Potable water is now flowing into this devastated city nine days after Supertyphoon "Yolanda" struck.

More delivery trucks are rolling into this capital of Leyte province as well as in Ormoc City, providing fresh relief items and augmenting the transport capability of the severely handicapped Task Force Yolanda.

An official of the Local Water Utilities Administration, Byron Carbon, said in a meeting presided over by Interior Secretary Mar Roxas that the water supply in the city was brought to "normal" on Sunday.

Carbon's announcement was one of the few bright spots in the national government-led relief and recovery operations for the hard-hit towns in Leyte. The good news elicited applause from national and local government officials who have been meeting daily to update and coordinate the various clusters engaged in the government's response to the devastation.

Roxas has been presiding over the daily coordination meetings at a small multipurpose hall of the Leyte Sports Complex that has been converted into an operations center. He is the vice chair of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

According to Carbon, all the main pipes, with its delivery system, are now operational. By operational, he was referring to the pipes running along the road network and not necessarily those going to households.

He said "yes" when asked by Roxas if the water was "chlorinated," with mud and residual dirt flushed out of the water delivery lines.

"The water is potable," Carbon said.

Roxas, however, asked the Department of Health to check the quality of the water amid fears of contamination from decomposing bodies and debris that still dominate the city's severely disfigured surroundings. "Choose several points to ensure that water is safe," he said.

With the city's water system up and running, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Francis Tolentino said he was moving the water treatment plant to the municipality of Basey in Samar province to provide much-needed potable water to residents there.

Before water service was restored in Tacloban, survivors resorted to scooping from streams, catching rainwater in buckets and smashing open pipes to draw what is left from disabled pumping stations. With at least 600,000 people homeless, the demand is massive.

Massive demand

Since the typhoon hit, Danny Estember has been hiking three hours into the mountains each day to get what he can only hope is clean water for his five daughters and two sons. The exhausting journey is necessary because safe water is desperately scarce here.

Without it, people struggling to rebuild and even survive risk catching intestinal and other diseases that can spread if they're unable to wash properly.

"I'm thirsty and hungry. I'm worried-no food, no house, no water, no money," said Estember, a 50-year-old ambulance driver.

Thousands of other people who sought shelter under the solid roof of the Tacloban City Astrodome also must improvise, taking water from wherever they can-a broken water pipe or a crumpled tarp. The water is salty and foul-tasting, but it is all many have had for days.

Dehydration

The US Institute of Medicine defines an adequate daily intake of fluids as roughly 3 liters for men and about 2.2 liters for women. Given the water shortage and hot climate, it's certain that many people in the disaster zone aren't getting anything like those amounts, leaving them prone to energy-sapping dehydration.

Providing clean and safe drinking water is key to preventing the toll of dead and injured from rising in the weeks after a major natural disaster.

Not only do survivors need to stay hydrated, they also need to be protected from waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

Haiti's devastating earthquake in January 2010 was followed by a cholera outbreak in October 2011 that health officials say has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened nearly 600,000.

The two events were not linked but it added misery to the entire country, as it was still recovering from the first disaster. Some studies have shown that cholera may have been introduced in Haiti by UN troops from Nepal, where the disease is endemic.

Avoiding diarrhea

Washing regularly, using latrines and boiling drinking water are the best ways to avoid contracting diarrhea and other ailments that can burden already stressed health services. It took several days for aid groups to bring large quantities of water to Tacloban.

By Friday, tankers were arriving. Philippine Red Cross workers sluiced water into enormous plastic bladders attached to faucets from which people fill jerry cans, buckets, bottles and whatever other containers they might have.

"I'm thirsty," said Lydia Advincula, 54, who for the last few days had been placing buckets outdoors to catch some of the torrential downpours that added to the misery of homeless storm survivors.

Water provisioning should get a big boost with the arrival of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington, a virtual floating city with a distillation plant that can produce 1.5 million liters of fresh water per day-enough to supply 2,000 homes, according to the ship's website.

Britain is also sending an aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious, with seven helicopters and facilities to produce fresh water. Britain's Ministry of Defense said the ship was expected to reach the area about Nov. 25. Filtration Filtration systems are now operating in Tacloban, the center of the relief effort, and two other towns in Leyte. Helicopters are dropping bottled water along with other relief supplies to more isolated areas.

Other more high-tech water purification solutions are also available, such as water purification bottles developed since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated parts of Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.

These contain systems that filter out parasites, bacteria and other dangerous substances from virtually any water source, making it safe to drink and alleviating the high cost and logistical difficulties that shipping in bottled water entails.

Team Albay's Watsan

The local government of Albay with its partner organizations, dubbed Team Albay, also brought to Tacloban its own water filtration machine.

A water sanitation machine (Watsan) siphoned water from a fire hydrant in Barangay (village) Caibaan, then subjected it to 12 stages of filtration to make it clean enough for drinking, said Romulo Buban of Team Albay.

Watsan, which produces 4,000 liters of clean water per hour, had so far produced 207,700 liters of clean water for more than 110 families in Tacloban and neighboring municipalities since it was set up on the day Team Albay reached the city on Nov. 8, Buban said.

Longer-term water solutions would come once the crucial issues of shelter and security were settled and would likely have to wait several months, said John Saunders of the US-based International Association of Emergency Managers.

Those water systems were far more complex, requiring expensive, specialized equipment and training for operators, he said.

"I can bring in a $300,000 water system that provides thousands of liters per day of drinking water but who pays for the system and how is it maintained and distribution managed?" Saunders said.

Long-term solutions are a distant concern for Jaime Llanera, 44, as he stands in a shelter he and his family have fashioned out of broken plywood and a tarpaulin.

A single 500-milliliter bottle of mineral water delivered by the military three days earlier is all that's available for his parents, sister, brother-in-law and a friend.

To stretch their supply, they've been collecting rainwater in buckets and any other containers they can find and boiling it. They're also using rainwater to clean: His mother dunks clothing into a bucket of rainwater and tries to scrub out the filth.

The family plans to wait one more week. If help hasn't come by then, they'll try to find a way out of Tacloban so they can stay with relatives elsewhere. "We have no house. We have no home. But we're still intact," Llanera said.

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