IRIN Association

Mass clean-up brings confidence over water supplies

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Source: IRIN Association

One of the chief concerns among aid workers in the wake of Cyclone Nargis was polluted ponds, the only source of drinking water for many villagers.

However, Lwin Maung, in Thonegwa, in Yangon Division, told IRIN he was confident that despite the approaching end to this year's rainy season, residents had already cleaned and refilled enough ponds to provide the household needs for the village's 700-plus inhabitants for the next six months.

Many ponds became contaminated in May when Cyclone Nargis struck. A 3m high tidal surge inundated much of the low-lying area with sea-water and debris, prompting strong warnings from health officials.

'Unless traditional potable water ponds are cleaned and refilled in time, people will have no option to get clean water during the dry season as the water ponds are their traditional potable water source,' one official from the World Health Organization (WHO) told IRIN at the time, citing concerns over water-borne diseases, including diarrhoea and dysentery.

According to estimates, 1,500 ponds - 13 percent of ponds in Yangon division and 43 percent of ponds in the badly affected Ayeyarwady Delta - were contaminated.

In July, the UN reported that 74 percent of people in the affected areas had inadequate access to clean water, with rainwater collection seen as critical in reducing the risk of disease outbreaks.

Government records show there were at least 4,550 water ponds in the affected areas (1,578 ponds in Yangon; 2,972 ponds in Ayeyarwady). Yet even before Nargis, securing clean drinking water had been a challenge.

Few people have access to piped water, with most residents reliant on rainwater harvesting tanks, communal rainwater ponds, open wells, tube wells and rivers.

And though access to water did not present a serious problem during this year's rainy season (from mid-May until end-October), some parts of the storm-ravaged region still faced shortages.

In a bid to address that, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), with its partners, has been working to clean up contaminated ponds, as well as provide water-storage containers.

According to its report released this month, UNICEF provided 30,000 plastic water-storage containers (90l), more than 40,000 jerry cans (10-20l) and 130,000 plastic buckets (14l).

It also provided water purification chemicals to approximately 200,000 people, along with more than 22,000 bottles of waterguard, a water purification agent, and 4.5 million chlorine tablets.

Successful intervention

According to UNICEF, to date some 1,500 contaminated ponds have been cleaned up, as well as another 300 as part of a preventative measure.

Based on that, Waldemar Pickardt, chief of water and environmental sanitation at UNICEF/Myanmar, told IRIN the agency now had enough time to prepare to provide people with adequate water should the ponds run out during the dry season.

The agency had installed eight water treatment plants in Bogale, Pyapon, Labutta, Mawgyun and Dala in the cyclone-affected area, each capable of producing between 4,000 and 15,000 litres of safe water per hour.

Moreover, UNICEF was able to relocate those water treatment plants to other areas at risk of a water shortage during the dry season.

'We will relocate water treatment plants by the river or stream where fresh water is available,' said Pickardt. 'These machines will treat the fresh water for the needy cyclone-hit families.'

As for the ponds that still need refilling, weather indicators suggest lower than normal precipitation this year.

Labutta, which was badly affected by the cyclone, received about 43cm of rain in July, against 80cm in the same month of 2007, according to government figures.

The August figure was 46.2cm compared with 64.3cm of rainfall in the same month last year.

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