Medical group says clean water is priority for flood affected

Medecins sans Frontieres has set up six diarrhoea treatment centres and is helping local communities to clean up contaminated wells.

Dr Jean-Paul Jemmy, left, and Brice De Le Vigne, officials with Medecins sans Frontieres, speak yesterday in Abu Dhabi.
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ABU DHABI // For the most vulnerable communities in flood-ravaged Pakistan, access to clean water remains the top priority as aid workers continue their battle to reach waterlogged regions. In the capital yesterday, en route to Brussels after a 10-day mission to Pakistan, Brice De La Vigne, operations co-ordinator for Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in Pakistan, and his colleague Dr Jean-Paul Jemmy, said that diarrhoeal diseases were a growing concern as many communities remain isolated due to damaged infrastructure.

"In a flood, all of the wells and water systems become contaminated," Mr De La Vigne said. "We have seen for ourselves, the authorities in Hyderabad [Sindh] were giving us glasses of water and the water was brown." MSF, which has delivered more than 540,000 litres of clean water daily since the floods struck on July 22, has set up six diarrhoea treatment centres and is helping local communities to clean up contaminated wells.

It is also stepping up clean water-distribution activities in the main towns and remote villages of Swat, Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Charssada, Lower Dir and Dargai. In the days ahead, water and sanitation work will be extended into the Sindh and Balochistan provinces. Teams are also planning to assess the water supply system of towns in Sindh to ensure that the water is chlorinated before it reaches people.

Panic about a possible cholera epidemic should be tempered at present, according to Mr Jemmy, who said diarrheal diseases, including cholera, have been an ongoing concern in Pakistan for several years. While MSF's medical team has recently treated some cases of suspected cholera, samples have been handed to the Pakistan health authorities for testing and, even if confirmed, would not necessarily indicate an epidemic, he said.

The organisation has deployed some 1,200 national and 100 international staff across the country and is operating mobile clinics - each containing a doctor, nurse and pharmacist - that travel the country daily in 4x4s, and boats when necessary, trying to reach those in need. "The types of cases they are seeing now, about 10 per cent are skin diseases because of a lack of access to hygiene, and another 10 per cent are all types of diarrhoeal disease," he said.

Children remain particularly vulnerable because of their underdeveloped immune systems and the fact that their main caregivers, their parents, are also suffering, he added. Accessing the communities most in need remains a challenge. "It is a real logistical nightmare, because the roads are out and the water is everywhere," explained Mr De La Vigne, referring specifically to the situation in the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan.

"This is a very flat land and the ground is clay, meaning it doesn't absorb the water. The water could stay for months." Reaching a population on the move is also difficult, as thousands evacuated from their cities seek shelter anywhere they can find it - including at schools and universities. While the water drained away quickly In the mountainous northern provinces, including Lower Dir, Swat and Kashmir, it took with it homes and bridges, isolating yet more families from life-saving relief.

Two shipments of tents have been sent from MSF's small Dubai-based logistics hub since the crisis began - enough to provide shelter for 670 families. MSF, which must seek approval from the local authorities before raising funds, is hoping to get the go-ahead to launch a campaign here, aimed at raising awareness about the scale of the disaster. "Donations and human resources are needed, not only by MSF but all organisations," Mr De La Vigne said. "Having seen the scale of the catastrophe, any help is welcome."

A team from the UAE Red Crescent Authority arrived in Pakistan yesterday to begin a vaccination programme to protect women and children from disease.