International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001


The lack of fresh water:
Main distress during a disaster

Ing. Claudio Osorio


Access to fresh water has allowed us to settle down, reproduce and secure both our survival and health. Along these lines, the use of fresh water has been linked, among other things, to food production and electric power generation. But in terms of water’s daily use by men, women, children and elders, i.e. having access to fresh water in order to meet the basic needs of personal hygiene, food and drinking water, deprivation of both the quality and quantity of fresh water puts our health and quality of life at risk.

A number of countries and cooperating bodies, citing the above essential uses of water, have for decades been working on related issues in order to secure the provision of drinking water in sufficient quantities for the world population at large. This procurement is a decisive element for people to be able to achieve their full development.

Taking into consideration that water production for human consumption is based on the availability of fresh water in the environment, efforts have been devoted to work on the protection of basins and natural water sources from degradation and pollution. The increase in desertification processes in some regions of theplanet makes evident that there is still much more to do in this field, particularly because this phenomenon is not only about the lack of water, but also about the total destruction of the environment and its ecosystems.

Having enough fresh water during normal times is very important for the lives, health and de velopment of peoples. One cannot stress enough how essential fresh water can be during extreme events such as social conflicts and disaster situations.

Although the impact of water-related threats such as floods, hurricanes and droughts must be recognized as the main cause of disaster situations, particularly over the last few years – due to ongoing environmental degradation and the lack of inclusion of these phenomena in planning and decision-making processes related to land planning and human settlements- it is also necessary to highlight throughout this year (2003), designated as the “International Year of Freshwater”, that securing water provision for human consumption during disaster situations represents a critical issue when addressing emergencies and guaranteeing that affected communities will return to normal as soon as possible.

The availability of water in adequate quantities and quality after the occurrence of a disaster is then an essential issue, especially after addressing the needs of search and rescue missions. The availability of water, for example, contributes to a number of critical tasks, including rescue work and extinguishing fires after an earthquake. In a similar manner, fresh water helps guarantee that adequate health care will be provided. Having fresh water also protects the health of the population at large, and contributes to the reactivation of different productive and commercial activities.

Despite its importance, water infrastructure frequently shows the same weaknesses faced by the rest of the infrastructure. As a result, water infrastructure is also exposed to the occurrence of disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, among others.

After the occurrence of a disaster, damage to the physical infrastructure of water provision systems has posed a recurring risk which occasionally has led to a lack of water provision for weeks and even months. For example, during the crisis caused by Hurricane Mitch, 75% of the population of Honduras (some 4,5 million people) was either deprived of water or, at the very least, had difficulties accessing water and sanitary services. It has been also noted that that, as a consequence of this damage, the water sector there declined to a level achieved three decades before, in terms of the work done and progress made to achieve universal coverage of such services. Three decades of efforts were lost in one week, and it will take years to reach the levels achieved before Hurricane Mitch.

Though some have proposed that it may be possible to plan and improvise water distribution among the population for an extended period of time during disaster situations (e.g. using tankers), this represents a logistical challenge and the utilization of resources that our countries would hardly be able to allocate. In general, it has been clear that not even large cities have the logistical resources needed for water distribution during an emergency (tankers, reservoirs, etc.), while water systems directly affected by a disaster are restored.

The paradigm of too much water, too little water…main cause of disasters may be reformulated when referring to the availability of water during a disaster. This, if because the lack of fresh water may also pose a threat to the population who has not been directly affected by a disaster. If they lack this basic service, they will become victims as well.

The most economic and feasible way of securing water provision during disaster situations is to locate, design and build infrastructure, taking into consideration the presence of natural threats as conditional factors and assessing the potential impact of these hazards. In a similar manner, infrastructure related to water provision must also incorporate mitigation measures for guaranteeing that these systems will work in said conditions while allowing institutions to address emergencies with all the available resources.

One critical situation that must be taken into consideration is the fact that both technicians and decision makers in charge of infrastructure planning will not always be able to locate this infrastructure outside of disaster prone areas. This may happen because populations receiving these services are sometimes settled in areas of risk themselves, which represents the “original sin” of any attempt to reduce vulnerability. In fact, on occasion, local authorities “legalize” human settlements located in risk zones by delivering basic services to these areas.

Local authorities should instead use the provision and delivery of these services as a planning tool that will allow them to define safe areas for population settlement. While an integral approach for risk management at the local level is sought, authorities should recognize that some independent sector advances might be made with regard to the tasks of reducing the vulnerability of both communities and infrastructure, which will lead to the synergy needed. In this manner, and taking into consideration the importance of fresh water infrastructure when addressing both emergency situations caused by a disaster and the recovery phase afterwards, local authorities should include this issue in all their initiatives and promote it, so that they also address issues related to reducing the vulnerability of their infrastructure and securing water provision for the affected population, who would then be able to give more support to authorities in times of a disaster.




For further information please contact:
The Pan-American Center for Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences (CEPIS)