Agencies optimistic about water supplies

In a significant improvement on the situation a year ago, survivors of Cyclone Nargis will have sufficient access to potable water during the next dry season, specialists say.

During the critical dry season - running from November to April - residents depend on whatever water they have been able to store during the rainy season.

"We are not expecting a water shortage in the next dry season," Daniel Collison, director of emergencies for Save the Children in Myanmar, told IRIN in Yangon, the former Burmese capital.

Access to potable water was a key health concern in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which killed some 140,000 people and affected two million more when it struck southern Myanmar in May 2008.

Traditional water sources, including ponds, tube and open wells, were either polluted or completely destroyed after a 3m high tidal surge inundated much of the low-lying area with sea-water and debris in the country’s worst natural disaster.

According to the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report, almost 1,500 ponds - 13 percent of those Yangon Division and 43 percent in the badly affected Ayeyarwady Delta - were contaminated.

Concerns were heightened during the last dry season, when water shortages were reported.

For some affected communities, river water and water trucking became the main source of drinking water.

Few people in the delta have access to piped water, with most residents reliant on home rainwater harvesting systems, communal rainwater ponds, open wells, tube wells and rivers.

In July last year, the UN reported that 74 percent of people in the affected areas had inadequate access to clean water, with rainwater collection regarded as critical in reducing the risk of disease outbreaks.

Photo: Stacey M Winston/ECHO
Most people depend on communal ponds like this one during the dry season, many of which were badly affected by Cyclone Nargis

Successful interventions

But thanks to successful interventions by international agencies, the authorities and local communities, the situation has improved.

“Cyclone survivors will have sufficient water because the contaminated water ponds have been rehabilitated, and in addition, some new water ponds have been constructed,” Waldemar Pickardt, chief of water and sanitation for the UN Children’s Fun (UNICEF), said.

“The possibility of water shortages in the coming dry season has been reduced to the barest minimum,” Morie Amadu, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) adviser for the Nargis response programme with Action against Hunger (ACF) in Myanmar, echoed.

To date, UNICEF has constructed 40 ponds in Kunchangone, Dedaye and Bogale townships, with some 50 more under construction in Labutta Township, one of the hardest-hit areas.

For its part, ACF has rehabilitated 19 ponds and constructed 12 in the Bogale area, while at the same time distributing some 6,000 ceramic jars. With a capacity of 250 litres each and four per household, each family is assured a water storage capacity of 1,000 litres.

“With frugal use, this storage capacity will last a minimum of three months into the dry season for an average household of five,” Amadu said.

Photo: Lynn Maung/IRIN
a village outside Bogale, residents have erected a simple metal drain
to catch rainwater for drinking. During the wet season, most depend on
rainwater as their primary source of safe drinking water

Safety first

But while aid workers are more confident than before, there is still no room for complacency.

“Now our focus should be on water quality,” Pickardt said, noting that residents continue to have limited knowledge of various water purification systems, including chlorine use or water filters.

As a result, the risk factors for a host of waterborne diseases, such as diarrhoea or dysentery, still exist, health specialists say.

“Fortunately, there were no serious reports of waterborne diseases, thanks to intervention measures taken by aid agencies,” an official from Myanmar’s Department of Health, who requested anonymity, told IRIN, citing the distribution of chlorine and water filters in affected communities.

“Just providing water purification things such as chlorine or water filters is not enough,” the official noted, however. “They [cyclone survivors] should [also] be educated why safe water is important to them, which would surely take time and money,” he added.