Bringing clean water to Pakistan's flood zones

© Ton Koene

When torrential rains and floods hit north-western Pakistan almost three weeks ago, Swat Valley was not spared as huge concrete bridges, roads and buildings were flushed away by massive flows of water. The immediate impact of the sheer destruction and death has now been replaced by other worries like waterborne diseases. The floods destroyed the electric network which also means that water treatment plants cannot function normally. In Mingora, the capital city of Swat, most of the 400,000 inhabitants no longer have access to clean water. In a zone where cases of cholera arise every year, providing clean water to the population is incredibly important.

“We have identified a water spring and in agreement with the local community, we extract, filter, chlorinate and distribute the water,” said Ms Azzura Dinca who is in charge of water and sanitation for MSF in Swat. “200,000 litres of purified water is distributed every day by MSF and a whole range of national and international organisations”.

The water is delivered to tanks located in different parts of the city so that people in all neighbourhoods have access to safe drinking water. In addition to this relatively classic approach to water delivery in crisis zones, MSF also brings water to the community, through the community itself.

“As some people in town still had access to their own water source, we offered to provide them with the use of a generator for a few hours in exchange that they share the water with their neighbourhoods,“ said Josep Prior Tio who coordinates MSF&’s activities in the Swat Valley. “The response from the community has been quite good, especially in neighbourhoods of difficult access for water trucks. Mosques, schools and individuals are now providing clean water to their local community.”

This solidarity illustrates the way ordinary Pakistanis have reacted after the floods. Many have given accommodation, food and sometimes money to their neighbours and relatives who had lost everything. Water is just one other thing Pakistanis are more than happy to share for the benefit of their community’s health. In the aftermath of the floods, preventing waterborne diseases is the top priority for MSF. There has already been a significant increase in diarrhoea cases, cholera is endemic in the area and there are cases every year. Without access to clean water, a disease like cholera can spread like wildfire.

When a patient with acute diarrhoea is admitted at the hospital where MSF works, the medics and water and sanitation experts share information to map where sick people are coming from. “Once we have identified that a few cases come from the same neighbourhood, we target that zone specifically,” added Ms Azzura Dinca. “For example today we are installing a 15,000 litre bladder with taps in Tahir Abad, a poor and badly affected neighborhood of Mingora.

A few people from this area came to the hospital with acute diarrhoea so we knew something was wrong there”. In 2008, the area was confronted with similar conditions. During intense fighting between militants and the army, the electricity supply was cut off for the whole of Swat Valley - about one million people. That year a cholera outbreak occurred, affecting more than 4,000 people including 2,500 severe cases who had to be hospitalised. “Today we are trying to avoid a repeat of 2008, by making sure the population in the most affected neighbourhoods can access a minimum of safe water,” said Josep Prior Tio.

“We’re preparing for the worst by erecting tents next to the hospital in case of a possible increase in diarrhea or cholera patients, but we hope that we won’t have to use it so much. Ironically, we used the same tents at the same place for a different medical emergency - to treat injured people during the 2008 fighting”.