The tsunami disaster has highlighted the importance of clean drinking water.
If there have been no major outbreaks of disease in areas hit by this past winter's tsunami, it is largely as a result of the rapid deployment of specialist water and sanitation teams in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on March 22, the occasion of World Water Day.

The International Federation has deployed seven such specialized units in Indonesia and Sri Lanka providing clean water to almost 500,000 people. It is the largest-ever deployment of water and sanitation Emergency Response Units (ERUs) since the system was established 10 years ago. The specially trained and equipped ERUs are staffed and maintained by several National Red Cross Societies, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Now, through training, this expertise is being filtered down into regional disaster response teams and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, bringing the life-saving service closer to those who need it. But while the tsunami operation has again highlighted the need for clean water in post-disaster situations, the International Federation also is committed to addressing longer-term chronic needs in the developing world.

“There is no doubt that the speedy deployment of our emergency response units has saved lives. After a major catastrophe, populations are vulnerable to water-borne diseases, and our ability to produce large quantities of safe water and provide adequate sanitation quickly has been crucial in ensuring that these communities were not subjected to a second disaster,” says Markku Niskala, Secretary General of the International Federation. “It would be a missed opportunity and grossly irresponsible if these populations were left to their own devices once the emergency phase has passed. We believe strongly that tsunami-hit communities, and vulnerable communities worldwide, should be given the means and know-how to ensure that they always have a supply of safe water, and their water sources are protected from future disasters.”

The Red Cross and Red Crescent is determined to utilize the expertise it has in this field, as well as the access it enjoys through its unparalleled network of National Society branches and community-based volunteers, to improve the lives of the more than 1.1 billion people around the globe who lack safe water and the 2.4 billion who have no access to sanitation. It was to this end that the International Federation just launched its Global Water and Sanitation Initiative (GWSI), which aims to scale up the developmental aspect of Red Cross Red Crescent work in this sphere.

The International Federation and its network of National Societies currently provide poor communities and victims of disasters with 30 million liters of water per day, benefiting more than 1 million people. It also provides essential sanitation services, such as building latrines and promoting good hygiene practices.

“With more than 3 million people dying every year for want of clean water or adequate sanitation, it is incumbent on us to use the privileged position we have within communities, as auxiliaries to national governments and on the international stage to act and advocate for greater access to safe water and so improve the lives of the most vulnerable,” says Uli Jaspers, head of water and sanitation at the International Federation.

“We endorse the aims of the second United Nations Decade for Water, and GWSI is our attempt to scale up our activities in this field and work towards the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without water and sanitation by 2015. Achieving this goal would be impossible without partnerships, and this is why we have recently formalized our working relationships with the World Health Organization and Oxfam UK in particular,” he adds.