Pakistan floods: Quenching thirst and preventing the spread of waterborne disease with clean water, litre by litre

Sadia is five years old. Seven times a day she takes a precarious walk of nearly half a kilometre to her family’s meagre shelter with two heavy pots of water balanced on her head and a bottle of water clenched under a skinny arm.

In August the monsoon floods swept through her hometown of Khairpur Nathan Sha, in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, rendering it part of an indistinguishable quadrant of the expanse of brown water still covering large parts of the country.

Its 10am and here on the outskirts of Jamshoro, where Sadia and her family found refuge, the sun is already beating down mercilessly and a wind sweeps up dust from what resembles a desert floor in the Shahbaz Colony camp.

Sadia tries carefully not to spill too much of the precious liquid as she walks home. In a couple of hours she and her older sister will be back to collect more water from the water point set up by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Sadia is among the nearly 43,000 people flood displaced people who live in make-shift shelters, tents and abandoned houses in Jamshoro and who each need at least 25 litres of safe water per day. This is amount is to be used for drinking, cooking and washing

Having access to regular and dependable supply of safe water decreases the possibility that Sadia, her family and the rest of the displaced people in the camps will contract potentially deadly water-borne diseases.

Before the massive blue tank was installed, where Sadia fetched her pots of water, a large water tanker truck used to arrive at least twice a day with 10,000 litres of clean water. Camp residents would then queue and with an wide assortment of pots and cans

“Having the tank here means people, like Sadia, now have access to water 24 hours a day, and they can come collect water whenever they want. They don’t have to wait in queues anymore when the water tanker comes around,” Lionel LARCIN, an MSF water and sanitation expert, explains.

But how did the water get there? We met a couple of people who ensure Sadia and thousands of other flood-displaced people get the clean and safe water they need.

MSF water and sanitation technicians operate water purification activities at the water treatment plant of the Liaquat University of Medical & Health Sciences (LUMHS) in Jamshoro.  It is here where MSF ensures that the 300,000 litres of safe water per day which are distributed by 10 water tanker trucks and four tractor tankers is produced to meet high standards.

The water tanker truck driver
Muharam Ali has been in the water trucking business since 1970. “I really feel for the people who have been affected by the floods. It gets really hot here in Jamshoro and they need safe drinking water. I know we are doing good work here because this water is of good quality. I have seen other water tankers, not working for MSF, simply picking up water from out of the canal. This isn’t safe,” said Muharam course.

The chlorinator and his apprentice
Mohammed Idrees keeps a painfully neat ledger detailing the results of tests on each consignment of purified water that leaves the LUMHS water treatment plant. Mohammed first measures the turbidity (the amount of particles suspended in the liquid), and then checks the pH level to determine how much chlorine will be needed to purify the water. He also carries out tests on 20 litre samples using 4ml to 6ml of chlorine monitoring how this dissolves during 30 minute, one hour and three hour intervals to see if it is palatable. Ideally there should be no discernable taste.

Mohammed’s apprentice, Toufiq Ahmed, aged 22, then takes over.

It is his responsibility to ensure the correct amount of chlorine is added into the filled-up water tankers which will deliver the water to the camps.

“I add three spoons of chlorine to the water in the 10,000 litre tanker trucks and half of that to the tractor tankers. At first I didn’t appreciate how vital my job is. But I feel the responsibility fully because I understand the impact of what we do. I have seen the thirsty people in the camps when I used to drive one of the water trucks – it makes all the difference to them that they can trust the water we supply because it won’t make them sick,” said Toufiq.

Meanwhile, back at the water distribution point, a small group of men have gathered.
Nazir Ahmed Manjhoo and Ghulab Machhi both live in the Shahbaz Colony camp, and they are in wrapt discussion with Javid Ali, a visitor from the Kiranshoro camp near Hyderabad.

They share the stories of their losses in the floods. Nazir used to be a farmer and Ghulab used to be a shopkeeper. Javid’s father was stuck in their village as the deluge came, and his fate remains uncertain. Now all three men only have their families and a couple of relief items while their needs remain pressing.

“The floods destroyed everything. I don’t know what we will do in the coming months or even years. It is going to be really hard. But for now, we have safe water and shelter,” Nazir said.
“Yes, the water is good... Beautiful wonders,” said Ghulab.   

Since 1988, MSF has been providing medical assistance to Pakistani nationals and Afghan refugees suffering from the effects of armed conflicts, poor access to health care and natural disasters in KPK, FATA, Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab, and Kashmir.

Since the start of the floods in Pakistan MSF has distributed 57,714 relief item kits and 13,755 tents; treated over 1,748  malnourished children, performed 49,534 medical consultations; set up seven Diarrhoea Treatment Centres; continuously conducts seven mobile clinics; distributes 1,250,400 litres of clean, safe water per day; built 714  latrines.

135 international staff are working alongside 1,198 Pakistani staff in MSF’s existing and flood response programs in Pakistan.

MSF does not accept funding from any government for its work in Pakistan and chooses to rely solely on private donations.