Water, Sanitation Key to Disaster Response, Long-Term Development

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Water, Sanitation Key to Disaster Response, Long-Term Development

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

News article

By: Erica Bulman

Date: 2005.

Source: Erica Bulman. "Water, Sanitation Key to Disaster Response, Long-term Development." Associated Press Archive. (March 22, 2005).

About the Author: Erica Bulman is a journalist who works for the Associated Press International. She has been affiliated with Associated Press bureaus around the world during the last decade, and has written on subjects ranging from sports to politics to war to natural disasters. She is currently posting sports stories and reports from Austria and Switzerland.


On the morning of December 26, 2004, at about seven o'clock local time, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred in the floor of the Indian Ocean about one hundred miles from the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake set into motion a series of tsunamis that struck eleven countries along the Indian Ocean's coast, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead or unaccounted for. Although there is an international tsunami warning system that alerts countries along the Pacific Rim of an impending tsunami, countries bordering the Indian Ocean had no such system in place in 2004.

The first warning that people had of the impending tsunamis was when they saw the enormous waves approaching the shore. When tsunamis are created, generally far out at sea, they travel at tremendous speeds (several hundred miles per hour), and are extremely long. As they approach the land, they slow down and increase greatly in size and power. Immediately before the first wave reaches the shore, the breakwater is suddenly pulled back from the shore by the force of the tsunami. When the tsunamis struck on December 26, 2004, on the Indian Ocean coastal areas, they swept across large areas of land, washing away entire villages and cities. Many bodies were left along the beaches; others swept away and never recovered. Not only were homes, businesses, schools, and commercial buildings destroyed, the ecosystems that existed in the affected areas were decimated as well. Many of the affected coastal areas were impoverished, some had long histories of political or economic instability. The low-lying areas had limited amounts of clean drinkable water, and wells were typically close to the soil surface. The tsunamis washed salt water over the topography, destroying crops and gardens, and contaminating the ground and well water, leaving humans and animals with no available source of water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. It also destroyed septic and sanitary systems, and flooded the existing water systems with sewage as well as saline.

Among the first priorities of the relief and emergency response agencies was the rapid establishment of large-scale sanitation systems, (along with removal and disposal of tens of thousands of bodies), and the provision of clean and drinkable water. After a disaster of the magnitude of the 2004 tsunamis, an urgent concern was the prevention of potentially fatal diseases spread by contaminated water and exposure to raw sewage.


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The damage on December 26 was actually two-fold: the earthquake out in the Indian Ocean caused a great deal of subterranean damage, fracturing pipelines and destroying well structures; the tsunamis devastated the land areas and destroyed water and sanitation systems over large land areas in eleven different countries, essentially simultaneously. Aid efforts were swiftly organized in order to deliver drinking water, and were effective in preventing large outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

Among the initial major tasks of the first responders was the creation of massive water purification and distribution systems, both to preserve life and to prevent the outbreak or spread of waterborne, and potentially fatal, illnesses (such as cholera, malaria, and the diarrheal diseases). Because of the magnitude of the disaster and resultant crises, and the need to immediately bring in sufficient quantities of water to support the populations and to sustain the relief and rebuilding efforts—and a goal was to create a sustainable water supply method for the projected several years that would be needed (at a minimum) to rebuild the ravaged areas—massive water containment systems were set up on various sites in which the contaminated water was piped in and treated to make it clean and safe for consumption. The water was then trucked to local relocation and distribution sites daily. At the same time, relief agencies began to train local workers in appropriate methods for cleaning and decontaminating wells—a process which takes a prolonged period to accomplish completely. Local workers are also trained in the operation of the water decontamination systems, as these are to remain in place until the safe water systems have been completely restored or created (in some cases). In addition to the large-scale water treatment facilities, smaller decontamination systems have been erected in many areas where the entire ground well system is likely to remain contaminated for prolonged periods—this represents another effort at restoring some sense of normalcy and independence in gradually recovering villages and towns.

By training local citizens in the maintenance and oversight of these systems, autonomy is restored—and the groundwork (so to speak) for future crisis response is set in place—which is especially important in areas likely to experience similar future events. The livelihoods of many thousands of people were lost with the tsunamis, along with their homes and families. By providing training and education, people were able to begin recreating a sense of economic and personal stability, a critical element of the long-term recovery process.

Much of the prior living area was destroyed, causing many thousands of people to be displaced and relocated. They are living in makeshift or temporary housing, typically with few amenities (although their lives were generally quite spare to begin with). Businesses no longer exist, families have been decimated, social structures have been lost, and homes are gone. Survivors need to have the necessities of life available in a dependable manner, so having a ready supply of clean water for drinking and washing is paramount.

Of nearly equal importance is the construction and maintenance of sanitary facilities such as latrines and solid waste disposal systems. The worldwide relief agencies are engaged in not only creating a temporary system for use until permanent shelters and overall reconstruction efforts are completed, but in the establishment of a stable infrastructure that will support healthy future development. A long term goal of all relief efforts is forward movement: creating a dynamic system that encourages independent future growth and development, and provides a basis for ongoing stability.


Web sites

CDC.com. "Safe Water System (SWS): Where Has The SWS Been Used?" 〈http://www.cdc.gov/safewater/where_pages/where_tsunami.htm#〉 (accessed January 6, 2006).

CNN.com: Science & Space. "Tsunami Centers To Go On 24-Hour Alert." 〈http://www.cnn.com/2006/TECH/science/01/05/seismic.alaska.ap/index.html〉 (accessed January 6, 2006).

World Health Organization. "Water Safety Plans: Managing Drinking Water Quality from Catchment to Consumer." 〈http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/wsp170805.pdf〉 (accessed January 6, 2006).