Water does not gush for all of us

AFAMILY of six needs 60 to 90 litres of water a day, just for basic drinking, cooking and keeping clean. Are you surprised at this figure? But given the fact that every time we flush the toilet we use four litres of water, you might agree that the above estimation is minimal.

Getting a water supply is easy for those of us living in an affluent city. Just think of how many water taps you have at home. However, for the half of the world's people living in poor countries, getting enough water to meet the basic need of drinking and personal hygiene is actually a daily struggle.

People must rely on inadequate or polluted sources such as urban stand-pipes, or rivers, lakes and wells.

To get water from these sources is no easy task. In the highland area of Ethiopia, for example, it can take up as much as a day for women to fetch water for their families.

According to the World Health Organisation, 80 per cent of all sickness and disease in developing countries results from unsafe water or inadequate sanitation.

Diarrhoeal diseases, which are spread by drinking or washing hands, food or utensils in contaminated water, are responsible for three million deaths each year.

In cases of emergency, such as drought, flood and war, when water supply is disrupted, the spread of diarrhoeal disease is much faster.

Do you still remember the human tragedy that happened in Rwanda last year? In order to escape violence, as many as one million refugees fled to camps within a few days.

The situation in the camps was appalling: there was not enough food, water supply or sanitation facilities.

Diarrhoeal disease such as cholera and dysentery followed and spread quickly, claiming the lives of 2,000 every day at the height of the emergency.

In the face of this human tragedy, aid agencies worked together to help meet the tremendous need of refugees. Oxfam was put in charge of water supply in the camps.

A ration of 15 litres of water per person was distributed to 700,000 refugees for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

In urgent and difficult emergency conditions, simple and easily installed water equipment is needed. The essential equipment includes tanks, taps, pipes, and pumps, and they should be readied in a pack so that engineers can quickly put them together and start the operation.

Water engineers have to look for a water source first - either surface or underground water. However, the located water source may be far away from where people stay. Therefore pumps and pipes are needed to collect water from the source and then tanks are used to store the water.

The tanks are usually made of steel with capacities of as much as 10,500 litres. The water collected has to be treated first before being distributed to people.

This operation of water supply has been applied in Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mexico and India in the past.

Fighting against time in difficult conditions to provide water to save another life is no easy task. However, a smile in front of the taps is reward enough for aid workers.

Oxfam Hong Kong is an independent development and relief agency based in Hong Kong which works with the poor regardless of race, sex, religion or politics in their struggle against poverty, distress and suffering. For more information, call 2861-1411