Easing southern Asia's powerful thirst

Sri Lanka's top beer producer built its reputation on its chilled lagers and full-bodied stouts. But soon after last week's catastrophe, when a tsunami struck the nation's coastline, executives at Lion Brewery in Colombo knew that the best way they could offer assistance was to stop brewing beer - and start bottling water.

Clean water, they knew, is among the most pressing needs. The giant wave wiped out public water and sanitation systems, contaminated wells and springs, and left millions across South Asia at grave risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

"Even before people would need medicine, there would be a need for fresh water," said Nausha Raheem, an executive at Lion Brewery in Sri Lanka's capital, in a telephone interview yesterday.

A day after the wave hit, killing more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka, the brewery called in its workers, flushed out the bottling system and began producing drinking water - 120,000 bottles so far - for distribution to the more than 800,000 Sri Lankans left homeless by the disaster.

Lion Brewery is just a small part of the huge effort to supply clean water to victims of the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunamis Dec. 26. Aid workers and volunteers from Sri Lanka to Indonesia are trucking in water, cleaning out wells, setting up filtration systems, and handing out millions of chlorine tablets to head off thirst and stem the spread of illness.

"Contaminated water is a weapon of mass destruction," said Gerald Martone, emergency director for the International Relief Committee, which has sent workers to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. "It's hauntingly efficient at carrying disease."

No single solution

But relief workers say that in this emergency - spread across 11 countries and two continents, from five-star beach resorts to poor fishing villages - there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

In some areas, including refugee camps in the Tamil Nadu region of India, aid workers are bringing in clean water in tankers or trucks full of bottled water. This approach works, experts say, but is usually expensive and unwieldy.

Water is not easy to transport. It is heavy: A liter weighs 2 pounds, and a person needs five liters a day simply to survive.

"You start thinking about supplying water to 100,000 people, that's a lot of tankers," said Les Roberts, an expert on disaster and waterborne disease at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

It can also be expensive. After last year's earthquake in Bam, Iran, water was trucked in from neighboring cities to supply 80,000 refugees. The cost was $130,000 a day, said Dr. Claude de Ville de Goyet, a disaster aid expert with the Pan American Health Organization, who was on his way yesterday to help in Indonesia.

Most aid experts said they would concentrate on other strategies. Jan Heeger, a water and sanitation engineer based in Amsterdam, said his group, Doctors Without Borders, prob- ably would focus on cleaning wells.

Along South Asia's coasts, many wells are now contaminated with sewage and salt water. Engineers can sometimes pump out the dirty water and, with luck, the well will refill with clean water that can be treated with chlorine.

But other methods are necessary, because wells can take weeks or months to refill. In Indonesia, decaying bodies have contaminated rivers and other water sources.

In many cases, aid groups are depending on chlorine. Workers are distributing millions of chlorine tablets, telling victims to dissolve them in water before drinking it or using it to cook.

"It's relatively cheap and easy," said Roberts. During the siege of Sarajevo, in the winter of 1992-1993, Bosnians lost access to clean water, but averted epidemics by using chlorine pills.

In some stricken areas, aid groups are posting workers at wells and springs and arming them with syringes full of chlorine solution. When people come to get water, the worker squirts chlorine in the bucket.

There are other options: Portable water treatment plants that fit in the back of a truck and reverse osmosis purification systems, which force water through a filter, removing salt and other contaminants. But the machines are costly, and require lots of fuel and maintenance.

In some areas, refugees can survive on rainwater, putting out buckets or laying a tarpaulin on a roof to collect water. In parts of Asia, the monsoon season has begun, making this a viable option.

Yet no matter where relief workers go, they seem to see tsunami victims standing knee-deep in the thing they need most.

"This is definitely a case of 'water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,'" said Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF. "Along thousands of miles of coastline circling the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, children and families who survived the tsunamis are struggling to survive their aftermath."

Heeger, the water and sanitation engineer, said, "It's not like Sudan, where it's hard to even find any water. In Asia, it's not lack of water, it's lack of clean water."

A 'critical' week

Despite concerns that millions of people remain at risk of waterborne diseases, the World Health Organization said yesterday that no serious outbreaks had been reported.

"The next week is critical," said Oliver Rosenbauer, a WHO spokesman in Geneva. "Just because we have not seen any outbreaks, it doesn't mean we are out of the woods."

"The issue of diseases being waterborne has lessened considerably but has not disappeared," said John Budd, a UNICEF spokesman in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Other aid agencies reported encouraging signs that the enormous efforts to deliver water across South Asia are paying off.

In the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where waves surged three miles inland, Australian army engineers connected a mobile purification plant to the city's main water lines. Most of the first 75,000 liters went to two local hospitals.

In India, UNICEF has delivered 2,500 water tanks to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where an estimated 400,000 people were left homeless by the tsunamis.

In Sri Lanka, an Oxfam plane delivered 11 tons of water equipment last week that is being set up on the country's east coast to assist 50,000 families.

At Lion Brewery, Raheem said the company will probably be distributing water for weeks to come.

Nearly everyone seems to know someone who died, said the Lion executive, who lost five members of her extended family.

"There are people who lost everything. How do you start over?" she asked. "You can't imagine."

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