Engineering Recovery After Bihar Floods

Latrines. Maybe they don’t make your list of Things I Get Excited About. But for Katherine Westphal, water and sanitation technical advisor for CRS in India, latrines are all about delivering health, in this case to people driven from their homes by massive flooding.

The Q&A that follows is the third of three parts that give insight into living conditions for thousands of people forced to evacuate after floodwaters tore through Bihar, India in August. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Caroline Brennan, CRS regional information officer in India for the past three years, provided the questions.

Why water and sanitation as a focus, as opposed to other needs?

As a water and sanitation engineer I am extremely biased, but I still consider water and sanitation as one of the most important components of human survival. In an emergency setting, safe and sufficient water is a critical determinant of health.

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Locally available materials such as jute stem (reeds) and bamboo are used to create durable latrines. Photo by CRS staff

What would you say to people who can’t imagine working in such difficult conditions and so far from your family?

I would be honest and say that it can be really difficult and lonely at times. Around holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July I especially miss home, but it is really incredible to feel like I am making a difference. I would also say that although the conditions can be really difficult at times (i.e. no electricity, running water or A/C) the job never gets dull. Every day in the “office” is a new day with exciting challenges.

What do you hope people understand about this emergency?

Floods in this area are not typical so the affected population were not in the least bit prepared. As the flood waters arrived, many fled from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. Not only have the floods severely impacted homes, but they have damaged crops and taken with them livestock. Recovery from this emergency is going to be a long and slow process. Breached river embankments must be patched, silt and sand carried by the flood waters removed from fields, and for many, entire communities rebuilt.

Are there any issues of concern that you think are especially important for reporters to cover with regard to the current stage of this disaster?

Now that we passed the initial response phase, I think it is important for reporters to cover how the flood-affected population is dealing with the disaster at individual level. We are only beginning to comprehend that magnitude of psychosocial trauma the floods have caused.

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