Information on the disaster in Haiti is only slowly coming out, but it is clear that the magnitude and extent of the catastrophe is vast, in a land seemingly cursed by endless environmental destruction.
In any disaster like this, after search, rescue, and immediate medical care, clean and safe water becomes a critical need. Without it, water-related diseases rapidly become a serious health threat for the survivors.
50 liters per person per day. In previous work I’ve done on basic human needs, I’ve identified 50 liters per person per day as a minimum for drinking, sanitation, cooking, and cleaning. In a disaster of this magnitude, even a fraction of that amount would be a blessing. Emergency water supplies can be provided in many ways, but there is no consistent approach or technology. Here are some that should be applied quickly:
— Some space on the first cargo planes should be reserved for small-scale desalination systems and other water purification plants that can be put in place immediately in centralized locations. Systems that fit on pallets, that in turn fit on transport planes, should be available. Water (such as bottled water) itself is very heavy. Best to send the equipment to purify unlimited amounts on the ground. Also send the solar energy systems, diesel generators, and other energy systems needed to operate them 24/7.
— Big US Navy ships have desalination systems on board. When the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrives (as news reports suggest it will), the ship’s water system — capable of producing water for thousands of people every day — should be tied in to some kind of land distribution system so people can come and collect safe water. Other ships with such capability should also be used in this way.
— It would have been nice to have pre-positioned some large water bags, such as the innovative Spragg Bag, that could be flown to the country, or to neighboring Dominican Republic, filled with freshwater, and towed to Haiti for distribution. Alas, this technology is still searching for angel funders, though similar bags operated commercially for a number of years in the Mediterranean. These kinds of bags could also be used to store water on land as it is produced by water purification plants.
— Engineers should begin immediately to evaluate and repair the basic water system. In Haiti, this system has always been marginal and limited, but the purification and wastewater systems needs immediate attention.
— I believe that both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have relationships with bottlers in Haiti. If so, their teams should work (as no doubt they are) to repair bottling facilities in order to provide purified water to surrounding communities rather than other commercial drinks, during the emergency.
Bottled water should be shipped when space is available. As much as I’ve been known to criticize the bottled water industry (and I have a new book coming out shortly, called Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, from Island Press, more about this a different time), some of the major bottled water companies have consistently been very generous during emergencies in making free water, or plastic bottles, available. The expertise of their water-quality engineers may also be valuable.
I’m sure there are many more good suggestions and ideas out there. Let’s hear them. This is one of the things Americans do really well. We step up in whatever ways we can.
Dr. Gleick’s blog posts are provided in cooperation with the SFGate. Previous posts can be found here.