Hand washing alone can prevent most water-related diseases (EQ/Tsunami)

Nobuyuki Kobayashi

A group of Japanese kids squeal with joy as they splash each other with the crystal clear water falling from the taps installed beside a large water tank, which bears the logo of the Japanese Red Cross.

One of the Red Cross teams which in these days are deployed in the area of Ishinomaki has worked all morning to set up this large 1000-liter water tank in the middle of the yard of Kaihoku elementary school, now turned into one of the some 200 evacuation centres scattered throughout the area of Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture.

The water tank will now allow the hundreds of evacuees currently accommodated there to regularly wash their hands and, at least in part, compensate for the lack of running water systems.

One of the main effects of the double disaster which struck Japan one month ago has indeed been the serious disruption of infrastructures in the affected areas, including power and gas supplies, as well as piped water systems.

Even though water has now been restored to almost 90 per cent of buildings, in some areas trucks are still being deployed to provide water to households without a piped supply.
The area around Ishinomaki, the most seriously affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, was among those which suffered the most from damage to services and facilities, with the local Red Cross hospital experiencing power interruptions and a number of evacuation centres still lacking water piped supplies.

“The lack of access to safe water and sanitation facilities, combined with poor hygiene awareness and practices is a major cause of disease and death” comments Dr. Tadashi Ishii, surgeon in Ishinomaki hospital, who has been working tirelessly as a Emergency Health coordinator ever since the disaste.

“As of today, draining systems are still not working in this and other centres, which has made the sanitary situation extremely challenging in the previous weeks, with people forced to collect excrements in plastic bags and throw them in the garbage, and unable to wash their hands regularly” he continues.

Dr. Ishii explains how in the first days after the setting up of the centre, the first suspect cases of diarrhoea, cough and fever started to appear.

“I had no doubt that these could be the initial symptoms of water-related diseases due to poor hygiene conditions. And I knew that if urgent measures were not taken, we may have had to face a serious outbreak” he says.

After negotiations with the Ishinomaki City Water Bureau and a series of assessments of general health conditions, 12 out the some 200 centres throughout the prefecture were selected for the put in place of special measures to improve sanitary conditions and thus prevent the further spread of infections. One of the main actions taken by the Japanese Red Cross has been the setting up of 9 water tanks (and donated 3 more for future use) for hand washing, in line with the Red Cross Red Crescent guidelines for water, sanitation and hygiene promotion in emergency situations.

“Disease prevention plays a key role in disaster response and early recovery. And a simple practise as washing hands after using chemical toilets can help prevent a number of dangerous diseases among the evacuees” comments Teiji Yamada, Red Cross watsan engineer, with a long experience in water and sanitation activities, including the Red Cross Red Crescent response in Haiti following the cholera outbreak.

“The Japanese Red Cross has decided to invest part of the funds donated by Partner National Societies in such a vital activity as water and sanitation” says Yuji Matsubara, coordinator of the Red Cross team tasked to set up some of the water tanks in the evacuation centres. “We believe this will tremendously help improve sanitary conditions in the centres, and by default, the health of the hundreds of people who are accommodated there.