By Nancy J. Haws

Experience demonstrates that unless a story makes front-page headlines day after day, it quickly fades from most people’s memory. For example, Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Central America in 1998; yet Honduras and Nicaragua still wait for two-thirds of the $8.7 billion dollars proffered in aid.1

In the wake of that disaster, Water For People (WFP) worked tirelessly with Honduran communities by helping them to address their own water and sanitation needs. Seven years later, Water For People remains a steadfast partner in Honduras providing safe water supplies to the most vulnerable.

Our role after the tsunami
The widespread extent of the disaster, the large number of people affected and the complications of seawater, waste material and debris have made this one of the most difficult humanitarian efforts ever.

Disasters usually result in a three-prong response: emergency relief, assessment, and long-term development. Although WFP is not an emergency relief organization and does not have staff or projects in any of the tsunami-affected areas, it will not let the water-related plight of the tsunami victims move from the foreground to the background of the world’s conscience. WFP will continue to facilitate sustainable development programs in the countries where it currently works but will also evaluate the issues of equal and greater long-term strategic significance associated with the tsunami areas.

Every month diseases related to inadequate sanitation and drinking water kill as many people worldwide as those lost during the recent tsunami. According to the World Health Organization, a child under the age of five dies every eight seconds from a preventable water-related illness. That equates to more than 330,000 children every month, eclipsing the toll of the Asian tsunami while not even taking into account the impact of inadequate sanitation and drinking water on adult populations.2

Within the next few years, the regions hit hardest by the tsunami may also experience the downward spiral caused by worsening health, diminishing economic strength and the degrading social conditions resulting from this catastrophe. Victims of the tsunami are likely to drift to cities or abroad seeking employment.

With the exception of the coastal areas of India, the communities where WFP works in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras and Malawi, rank lower on the United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI)3 than any of the other areas hit by the Asian tsunami. The UNHDI measures life expectancy, education by school enrollment and the standard of living including income. However, since much of the infrastructure, tourist trade and livelihoods have been destroyed in southeast Asia by the tsunami, the well being of these communities risk rapid decline without access to the most basic essentials necessary for survival.

Beyond immediate relief: assessment and reconstruction
Now that the tsunami crisis is in the assessment phase, Water For People has helped, when asked by organizations working in the affected areas, to find volunteers capable of helping with water quality testing, assessment and other technical skills. WFP has posted information on technical volunteers needed and encouraged those interested to contact groups in need of assistance. There is still a need for volunteers with technical skills, but the requests are for volunteers who can stay in the affected areas for three to six months and in some cases longer.

Unlike emergency response efforts where volunteers tend to come for a short period and then leave, reconstruction and development require more time, more finances and extensive access to reliable human resources. Quick fixes only last so long before dependency occurs and this often breeds frustration, anger and despair.

Rebuilding a sustainable future takes more than the mere transfer of money. Trust, relationships with legitimate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and financial institutions, on-the-ground expertise in health promotion and hygiene education, applicable water and sanitation technologies appropriate to the needs of the communities being served, cultural sensitivity and international development experience are vital prerequisites for successful long-term public health interventions.

Building international coalitions
Water For People is working with the International Water Association ( to develop a list of volunteer needs related to the crisis. As WFP receives inquiries, it will broadcast requests for equipment and/or supplies to manufacturer and associate members of the American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation and the Water Quality Association.

We have also been asked to consult on a pilot project/case study in Sri Lanka to see what type of long-term aid strategy might be developed. WFP is suggesting that a feasibility study be conducted first to evaluate how work in this area could meet our development criteria. As part of a loaned executive program to WFP, The Roberts Filter Group is paying Andre Razeek to assess rehabilitation work in 12 of the coastal settlements in Sri Lanka.

Razeek is working with the Water Resources Board of Sri Lanka, which has already established a dedicated Centre for Disaster Mitigation and Management (CDMM) to cater to the immediate and long-term requirements of clean drinking water to affected communities. Razeek recently submitted a report prepared by Professor Atula Senaratne, a senior lecturer in the Department of Geology at the University of Peradeniya and chairman of the Water Resources Board, Sri Lanka. The report highlights the various short, medium and long-term approaches to addressing drinking water supply and sanitation for the displaced in the 12 districts of: Amapra, Kaluthara, Galle, Matara, Batticalo, Trinicomalle, Jaffna, Colombo, Mulative, Gampaha, Putalam and Hambantota. Following are excerpts and statistics from Professor Senaratne’s report.4

Short-term approach
The WRB Centre has launched a special program to assist the government of Sri Lanka in its effort of rehabilitation of the tsunami victims. The WRB has appointed six field operation units in as many districts under respective provincial managers. Each team consists of two hydrogeologists, two public relations officers, one drilling officer, one field assistant, two drivers and two laborers. These six units are stationed in affected areas and managed by a steering committee headed by the chairman of the board. The Water Resources Board will absorb 50 percent of the cost of the operation with the balance to be paid by other relevant ministries and donor agencies. The primary objective of the short-term approach is to provide safe water and sanitation to 249,240 displaced people lodged in 486 welfare centers in 12 districts.

The CDMM has deployed six field operation units to clean all domestic wells in affected areas at a rate of 50 wells per day (per team) with 10 engine-driven centrifugal pumps in each district. The WRB Centre proposes to install 486 water purification plants with a minimum total capacity of 2.5 million liters in 12 districts. Further, each district needs at least two high-capacity reverse osmosis (RO) units to be installed at selected hospitals and health centers in affected areas. WRB personnel will man these units.

Due to the vast number of gravesites in the affected areas, the WRB Centre proposes to monitor groundwater contamination due to leachate originating from the graves, which have been clearly marked. WRB is seeking assistance to procure a field/mobile laboratory for this purpose.

Medium-term approach
WRB personnel are monitoring shallow and deep wells in the affected areas. The tsunami flooding and the resultant infiltratant salt water have devastated the shallow groundwater table and also the freshwater lenses in the sandy coastal stretch. Groundwater is found in freshwater lenses underlying the atolls and floating on top of the saline water. Heavy abstraction of this as the main source of drinking water has depleted the freshwater lenses causing salt water intrusion. Groundwater is recharged by rainfall but becomes contaminated while percolating through the soil, which is generally polluted with organic and human wastes. WRB feels that this situation can be rectified by careful and appropriate remediation, which may take at least two cycles of monsoon rains.

Awareness programs for tsunami survivors
The WRB’s qualified staff (with foreign training) will provide a series of one-day lectures and practical sessions for school and community leaders. The program will cover: types of water-related problems that arise during and after a disastrous situation; short-term remedies; medium-term remedies and long-term remedies.

Long-term approach
The WRB proposes to replace the more than 500 damaged wells in addition to constructing wells in new resettlement areas. The WRB estimates that more than 1,000 wells will need to be constructed to adequately address the number of displaced families in the area. The WRB figures that it will require at least one full year to construct the total requirements with assistance from private sector operators.

As additional assessments and requests become available, WFP will keep its donors and volunteers notified of its potential role in development strategies related to the Asian tsunami.

Asian tsunami long-term development funds
To date, Water For People has received $75,000 in donations and pledges for long-term Asian tsunami development projects. WFP has also been asked to join coalitions with international non-profit and for-profit organizations to be eligible for long-term development projects, similar to WFP’s country programs.


  1. The World’s Response More Generous Than Thou; The Economist, Vol. 374 Number 8408; Page 27; January 8-14, 2005.
  2. World Health Organization, 1992. Our Planet, Our Health: Report of the WHO Commission on Health and Environment.
  3. The United Nations Human Development Index, 2004, http:/
  4. Professor Atula Senaratne, B.Sc (Cey.), M.Sc. (London), DIC, Ph.D. (FRG), AvH Research Fellow (FRG); Rehabilitation of the Tsunami Victims Drinking Water Supply And Sanitation For the Displaced, Sri Lanka; January 2005.

About the author
Nancy J. Haws is the communications manager for Water For People. Please visit regularly the Water For People website for updates and notices of needs: and for specific questions, please write to [email protected]



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