There’s a joke making the rounds of cell phones at Pakistani universities these days. The professor asks, “What’s the chemical formula for water?” A student writes ‘H2MgClNaClHNO3’ on the board. “You idiot,” snaps the professor, “The symbol for water is just H2O.” The student: “Not if it’s floodwater.”
Far from university classrooms, in remote villages of Pakistan, the joke is a grim reality. After floodwaters swallowed up homes, chickens, latrines, and more, the available drinking water—from tainted wells or springs—is making people sick. Children are particularly at risk: in many places where Catholic Relief Services works, parents say their kids are suffering from much more diarrhea.
“So many animals died in that water.”Jenna, a 40-year-old mother of three, nods towards a newly-formed lake fifty feet from her makeshift tent in a region called Thatta. “And it smells.” Jenna and her husband know they need to get safe water for their three children. A hand pump with good water is not far away, but the way there is itself flooded. Men in the tent camp swim across, fill plastic bottles and pots, and push them back across the bad water on a small piece of wood.
In an area called Khairpur, a man named Bashir points to a hand pump his family used to use. “It’s not working now,” he says. It’s not hard to see why: three feet away, in a space that used to be dry, there’s a river. Bashir and his neighbors never used to live on an island, but now they have to swim 70 feet any time they want to reach the mainland.
Bashir’s neighbor Rani points to the new river. Kids splash in it, and water buffalo soak in it. “This is what we drink.”
To keep illness at bay, CRS has already distributed water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts to 55,000 people countrywide. Parents strain water through cloth to get the worst of the debris out, and then add tablets that take 30 minutes to work.
In northern communities where women traditionally remain in the home, it’s difficult to reach the people who have the most direct control over children’s drinking water: wives and mothers. CRS uses several strategies to overcome this challenge. During hygiene sessions in public forums with men, CRS and partner trainers specifically talk with men about how they will share the information they have learned with their wives. To reinforce the messages, CRS’ partner hires local women to go out to villages and train mothers in their homes.
CRS staffers find out the most common mistakes that village women make when treating their drinking water. Some women were using the wrong number of tablets; one elderly lady threw her tablets in a well, thinking they would clean all the water.
Trekking through sodden, silt-covered floodplains or taking boats to reach cut-off villages, CRS staff use buckets and tablets to demonstrate the right way to purify water. Watch this brief video to see how they do it.
Laura Sheahen is CRS’ regional information officer for Asia.
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