Health & Medicine

Clean water critical need in Haiti

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MINUSTAH staff members treat an injured Haitian man at an ad hoc medical clinic. (Image: Flickr user United Nations Development Programme (cc: by-nc-sa))

Story by  Matthew Bell, PRI's "The World"

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The US says it will send thousands of troops to Haiti to help rescue efforts in the wake of the devastating earthquake. President Barack Obama pledged one of the biggest relief efforts in recent US history and said Haiti would “not be forgotten” in its hour of need.

One critical need in these early days after the earthquake is clean drinking water. The lack of water could further weaken those who are injured, and the contamination of drinking water supplies could threaten all survivors.

A medical worker in Haiti speaking to the Associated Press put it this way: "There's no water, there's nothing. Thirsty people are going to die."

Patrick McCormick, a spokesperson for UNICEF in New York, says water is a top priority for Haiti right now. "We understand that the water supply has mostly been cut off, so you've got a lot of bad water laying around and kids are very tempted to drink it,. So we need to get the water in there as soon as possible, otherwise you can get the outbreak of disease from bad water."

McCormick says aid groups have started to distribute bottled water and water purification tablets, and supplies are being delivered to Haiti on trucks from the Dominican Republic next door. More is on the way by boat and by aircraft.

People who have been injured are particularly vulnerable to dehydration. That means medical facilities are in desperate need of clean water right now.

Mugur Dumitrache is a water and sanitation expert with the aid group Mercy Corps. He's in Switzerland trying to figure out what he'll be up against when he arrives in Haiti this weekend.

"The time line is, first we have to deal with the quantity -- we have to make sure that there's enough -- and then we'll deal with the quality," he explained.

Dumitrache says what's needed after a disaster like this is about four gallons of water per person, per day. He says hospitals need more than twice that much, not just for patients, but for things like providing clean bedding.

Aid groups aren't just sending water to Haiti, but also water purification equipment. Dumitrache says he and his team will be setting up mobile purification units. These can quickly convert contaminated water into clean, drinkable water that people can carry home in plastic jugs.

But to do that, his team will first have to find sources of water, and that can be a challenge in parts of Haiti. "It seems that the villages that were using wells previously, most of them are still working, so it's ok. The mountain villages or towns that had water supplies fed by streams from the mountains, they might have problems due to landslides."

In coastal areas, the ocean could be a source of drinking water. Some aid groups could bring desalinization equipment, but Dumitrache  says that process is both slow and expensive.

In many parts of Haiti, problems with clean water existed long before the earthquake. And Dumitrache says in a way, that could be an advantage, because many Haitians already know about the dangers of contaminated water. They're familiar with how to filter water and how to use water treatment tablets. Now, as Haitians try to survive in the aftermath of the earthquake, this basic know-how could mean the difference between life and death.

More on Haiti earthquake aid:
Telecommunications critical in Haiti relief effort
Rebuilding Haiti
White House blog on Haiti aid effort

You can help through these aid organizations.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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