In the Philippines, storm survivors desperately need clean water and sanitation

By Coco McCabe
Redd Swing, who works on Oxfam's logistics team, helps to unload hygiene kits for distribution in the typhoon-ravaged area around Cebu in the Philippines.

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Oxfam is racing to deliver water and sanitation services to 20,000 families to help prevent the outbreak of disease in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

In the many photographs that have filled the news since Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines late last week, there is one that I can't get out of my mind: an aerial shot (above) that shows windows blown out and roofs gone on the few buildings left standing; the rest are a heap of splintered rubble. Where in this sprawl of ruin could someone find a toilet to use or a tap from which to draw a sip of water?

The scene is the shoreline of Guiuan, the town in the eastern Samar Province where one of the most powerful tropical storms ever to make landfall first hit. The typhoon affected more than 11 million people across the country and left many desperate for clean water and sanitation services. Without them, the threat of waterborne diseases like cholera, which can kill quickly, skyrockets. Oxfam is racing the clock to deliver those two essentials to 20,000 families—or 100,000 people. It’s the first phase in an emergency response that aims to reach half a million Filipinos.

“If we’re going to save lives, we’ve got to get clean water to people as fast as possible,” said Myra Foster, a humanitarian public health specialist at Oxfam America. “Coupled with that is an urgent need for sanitation, like toilets, so people can go to the bathroom with dignity and without contaminating what clean water there is.”

Though access roads, ports and airports are being restored so that aid can begin to get through, the process has been slow. Following the work of Oxfam’s rapid assessment teams sent to the field earlier this week, the organization is now in response mode: about 3,0000 hygiene kits have been shipped from Manila and are ready for distribution in Cebu, one of the country’s severely damaged provinces. The kits include soap, blankets, underwear, toothpaste, and toothbrushes.

“Cholera is the disease of dirty hands,” said Foster.  That’s why ensuring access to soap and clean water is so critical in an emergency: People need both for staving off sickness.

Sphere standards, the globally accepted guidelines for emergency response, suggest that everyone should have access to 15 liters of clean water a day to meet their cooking, drinking and washing needs. But when it’s in short supply, people have few options.

At the Daanbantayan National High School, now an evacuation center for 160 families in Daanbantayan Cebu, a well across the street has become a key source of water for some of them, despite the fact that it is contaminated by salt water. Since fuel is in such short supply, and families save it for cooking, some of them told an Oxfam assessment team that they don’t boil the water before drinking it: They have no choice but to swallow it as is.

“In an emergency response like this, we’re looking to ensure that people have access to safe drinking water,” said Kenny Rae, Oxfam America’s humanitarian public health engineer. “That might include rehabilitating damaged water systems or, in the short-term, delivering water by truck and storing it in bladders or tanks near temporary shelters.”

Current plans call for the provision at five sites of mobile water treatment units with a capacity to treat up to six cubic meters of water per hour.

And making sure people have a decent and safe place to go to the bathroom is also a priority. The emergency standard is one toilet for every 20 people—a goal that can often be hard to achieve in crowded and chaotic situations, said Foster, who has seen as many as 250 people having to share one toilet in similar emergencies.

In building latrines, Oxfam pays particular attention to the concerns women have for security, said Foster, ensuring that the facilities are well lit and situated in locations where women and girls feel safe.

“We’ll also ensure that the latrines are maintained efficiently and that there is a plan in place for disposal of the wastes,” added Rae

But in the dash to beat disease outbreaks, there is now another worrisome wrinkle: a low pressure area that has flooded the airport in Tacloban, one of the severely damaged cities, causing the delay and cancellation of flights..

“You’ve already got people in a terribly vulnerable situation. Flooding  makes things even worse,” said Foster.