When Hurricane Dorian tore across the Bahamas in 2019, tens of thousands of families were left without clean water and basic supplies. Local wells had been engulfed with seawater and the utility infrastructure was destroyed. Bottled water was limited and at a cost that many families were unable to afford.
Mercy Corps arrived in Grand Bahama, one of the hardest hit islands, with immediate emergency support, delivering hygiene kits, solar panels, and a stopgap supply of water. The WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) team partnered with the sole utility company in Grand Bahama to build a water treatment system and distribution network. By coordinating with the local government, community groups, and other humanitarian organizations that were on the ground, the WASH team treated and distributed clean drinking water to almost 5,000 families in Grand Bahama within weeks. After months of close collaboration with the Grand Bahama Utility Company, Mercy Corps handed over the water distribution network to the company to continue to provide clean water to their community.
In moments of crisis, including natural disasters, conflict, and displacement, Mercy Corps’ WASH experts’ priority is to provide communities with the basic necessity of water and sanitation so they can focus on rebuilding their lives. “WASH is not an engineering thing. It's a public health activity,” said the program’s senior advisor, Mugur Dumitrache, who was in Grand Bahama to support planning and logistics in rebuilding access to clean water. “Everything relates to health.” While WASH’s principles are around sustainability, equity, and inclusion, the program is driven by enhancing and maintaining the public health of all the communities it supports across the world.
The COVID‑19 pandemic had underscored how WASH intersects with public health. In 2020, Mercy Corps reached more than 9 million people through WASH programs in 25 countries, and developed COVID‑19-related services to existing projects that served 4 million people. The expansion of our WASH work during the unprecedented pandemic included developing more access to piped water, building latrines, and promoting hygiene.
In rural northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mercy Corps was already on site and working to alleviate the Ebola epidemic amidst displacement due to armed conflict since 2019. When the COVID‑19 pandemic struck, WASH expanded their existing programs and built more hand-washing stations in busy areas. Although community members in the DRC are familiar with hygiene and prevention measures due to their experience from the Ebola outbreak, COVID‑19 specific information was necessary to further protect themselves. From the DRC to Afghanistan to Indonesia, our WASH team members have distributed hygiene kits along with accessible information about COVID‑19 and how to stay safe.
A mercy corps team member surveying the inside of a building damaged by flooding. Mercy Corps’ Piva Bell walks through a damaged house in western Java, where flash floods poured through some areas and reached ceiling height. In 2020, Mercy Corps provided emergency kits and installed water points to prevent the community from relying on the poor-quality river water. Our WASH teams’ commitment to the wellbeing and safety of communities is integral to its development every step of the way—especially for women and girls. Limited access to water supply and sanitation disproportionately affect women and girls since they are most often responsible for collecting water. They may have to devote much of their day to the task, raising school dropout rates, and increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence.
From the first planning stages of any response, WASH team members talk to women and girls in the community. “[The team] gets their views and opinions about which are the best places, locations, to place those water points so that they can access those without any fear, or without any risk of getting harmed,” said Mercy Corps WASH team’s senior advisor, Manzoor Hussain.
“Our teams make sure that they have, through community elders and the communities, women participation and representation,” said Manzoor. Through feedback and working closely with local organizations and governments, our WASH teams form relationships to build and restore equitable solutions and sustainable systems that they’re able to hand back to the communities.
Since 2010, the United Nations declared access to water and sanitation to be a human right. Yet, globally, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two in five people are unable to access basic hand-washing facilities with soap and water, and 2 billion people are without toilets and latrines. Clean water and proper hygiene are critical for people to stay healthy—especially in emergencies, where access to these essentials is crucial to rebuilding lives and livelihoods. For people who are in the most vulnerable time of their lives, WASH is a foundation for recovery by providing access to what is most fundamental for human survival.