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Liberia: Residents of caterpillar-infested areas still lack safe water

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ZOTA, 20 March 2009 (IRIN) - Many Liberians in areas recently infested by crop-eating caterpillars are scrambling to find safe water as some wells contaminated by the insects have yet to be cleaned up.

"The wells and the hand-pumps most of us used to drink from are still infected with faeces," said Nowai Kollie, one of the residents in Shankpalla, the first town invaded by caterpillars in Zota District, 170km north of the capital Monrovia.

"There is a serious problem with having clean water right now in this town."

In January thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes in Zota and other districts in Bong County, as well as Lofa and Gbarpolu counties, when millions of caterpillars invaded towns and villages, devouring crops and contaminating water sources.

"We have seen government and NGO workers coming into our town several times, assessing the wells and hand-pumps, but we have not seen them carrying out any form of chlorination," she said.

At least scores and possibly hundreds of people are affected, residents say. Government officials said they did not have the precise number.

Hu Bun Tulay, head of the state-owned Liberia Water and Sewage Corporation (LWSC), told IRIN the agency started chlorinating or replacing water sources in the affected areas the week of 9 March.

He said 87 towns need water sources repaired.

Many residents have grown impatient.

"It is very surprising to us that despite assurances we received from the local health team in Bong County that they would clean up our wells or if possible dig new ones for us, this has yet to happen," resident Jeremiah Goe said.

He said those who used to drink water from his well are now digging another well on their own.

"Our farms that we depend on for funds were damaged by the caterpillars and we must mobilise small cash among ourselves to dig wells."

Some residents from non-affected towns have started transporting drinking water in jerry cans to affected areas. A five-gallon container of water costs US$0.25. Weekly income for rural people in the area is between $10 and $15, according to residents.

Edwin Juah, representative of Zota District in the national legislature, expressed concern at what he called a slow response by the government to make funding available to chlorinate infected water sources.

"I have made several appeals to the ministries of Health and Public Works," he said. "But nothing has been done."

The heads of the two ministries in early March pointed to delays in the Ministry of Finance in releasing funds for the work.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf visited the affected towns in the first week of March and expressed dissatisfaction over the slow response to the water contamination, Presidential Press Secretary Cyrus Badio told reporters in Monrovia. The president named the LWSC to spearhead the chlorination process.