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World

Restoring drinking water in the Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan left many in the Philippines without access to clean water. But it can take months to repair water lines. Portable and temporary treatment facilities are helping purify contaminated water.

The gas tank is full, the oil has been checked, and the battery is brand new. But the generator won't start. Sven Guericke unscrews the cover once again. After one more try, the motor finally starts chugging along. Relieved, Sven Guericke looks up at the water tower of the Dawasco I station in Daanbantavan in the Philippines.

Thanks to the generator, a pump can now fill the water tower, allowing the people in the region to access drinking water again.

"The generator was the only problem," Guericke said, explaining that the destruction in this part of the island of Cebu was indeed very heavy, but the drinking water system was not totally destroyed.

Relief worker Sven Guericke working on a generator

Sven Guericke tries to get the generator running

Guericke is a volunteer with Germany's Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) and is investigating the situation in areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. He and 10 of his colleagues have brought along materials needed to restore drinking water access. That includes 20 tons of tanks, pipes, pumps and filters. The team can transform 12,000 liters (3,000 US gallons) of contaminated water into drinking water per hour.

"You don't build a facility like this in every village, of course," he said, noting that the point was to open access to as many people as possible. "That's why it's important for us to conduct a thorough survey of the area first in order to find the right spot."

Desperate need

Along with Guericke's group, three other teams are also checking out the areas struck by the typhoon. Guericke's colleague Michael Deininger calls via cell phone from the island of Bantayan, where his team has discovered that local residents in the coastal town of Santa Fe desperately need water. The storm damaged the local water network, and bacteria have already begun forming in the town's underground supply wells.

Residents of the Philippines sit amid storm destruction

Many still lack access to water in the Philippines

That information leads a team of THW volunteers to travel by ferry to Bantayan, taking three trucks with them. It's just one of many areas in which the storm rendered people in need of clean drinking water - and fast. Fallen trees have destroyed water lines in many areas.

Too scarce, too contaminated

Haiyan is the worst typhoon she has ever seen, 64-year-old Leonora Ardapat said. She teaches at a local school and is standing together with three of her pupils at a hand pump. They're extracting water from an old well that people had nearly forgotten.

Michael Deininger at work in the Philippines

Michael Deininger says he's pleased to draw on his professional experience to help others

"We now have to come from all kinds of places in the region and get water from this well," she said, pointing in each cardinal direction. "We get diarrhea from it, and I don't know if the water is dangerous for the small children."

As such, nearly the entire entry area to Santa Fe's city hall has been filled with water bottles. Aid organizations brought the water to the island, but it's insufficient to provide for all of the residents. That's why Mayor Jose Esgana has called on THW to help. "We are in urgent need of drinking water," Esgana said. "Thank God the relief workers came here. That means a lot to us."

Portable labs

But first the volunteers have to build their makeshift facility. After clearing toppled trees from a place behind city hall, Sven Guericke and his team set up four basins for untreated water under the blazing sun. Their purpose is to hold contaminated water from local wells. At first, the THW workers' water pipes don't fit the tubes attached to the wells. Adapters are brought over by ferry, and water is flowing by the next day.

Michael Deininger, who heads a water facility at Ammersee Lake in Bavaria and works on a volunteer basis like all of THW's helpers, uses a plastic container for an initial test of the water's salt content. Everything looks fine. Using a portable laboratory brought along by the volunteers, THW can investigate the water more precisely. Then the cleaning begins. First, dirt settles in the bottom part of the water containers. The water is pumped out from above, then cleaned further with pebbles and active carbon. Finally, it's disinfected with chlorine.

A makeshift water treatment facility near Santa Fe in the Philippines

A makeshift facility provides water to those near Santa Fe

Vital resource

The now drinkable water flows into big blue balloons that can hold up to 10,000 liters. Then people from around the region will be able to access the water at no charge, as stipulated in an agreement between THW volunteers and the city's mayor.

Michael Deininger wipes the sweat from his face. "That is definitely a very good feeling, drawing on your professional experience here and just seeing that you're doing something incredibly meaningful," he told DW.

Deininger contrasted the thankfulness of the people he's helping here with the occasional difficulties he faces in meeting German customers' high standards. "It's a great thing to be here and to provide people with the most important source of nourishment - drinking water."

Just a few hours later, residents of Santa Fe are able to fill their water canisters at city hall. And additional THW workers are simultaneously conducting further investigations on the island to figure out where to position a second water treatment facility.

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