JOHANNESBURG, 5 December (IRIN) - As the first rain since Mount Karthala erupted brings desperately needed relief and the extent of the damage becomes clearer, aid agencies are scrambling to help authorities cope with the fallout.
The volcanic dust and debris covering extensive areas of the Grande Comore island have raised concerns about the health of 245,000 people living in the polluted area, as well as the effect on agriculture and livestock.
"Today it rained heavily and now the ash has almost cleared," Joseffa Marrato, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) country representative, told IRIN.
Toxic volcanic ash has contaminated the reservoirs, where water levels already low as a result of delayed seasonal rains. The authorities have called on international agencies and local organisations for support in addressing an immediate threat of inadequate access to potable water.
"Our most pressing issue is water provision - it has become contaminated and, because of the drought, most of the water cisterns were almost empty," Marrato pointed out.
As part of an emergency plan, subterranean water is being collected in the capital, Moroni, and transported by truck to affected areas. UNICEF has provided trucks, water tanks, fuel and financial resources to cover operational costs.
However, tapping into the water supplies of unaffected areas to provide for those in need was stressing available sources.
"Today we realised that the regular water system is not working - it is weak by nature. By taking water from people unaffected by the volcano we are depriving these areas of water too," Marrato remarked.
Addressing the immediate problem by redistributing water has again revealed the underlying issue of poor water infrastructure. According to Marrato, a long-term response to the issue was desperately needed.
After a rapid assessment, conducted by local authorities in collaboration with UN agencies and the Comoros Red Crescent Society (CRCS), authorities have established water, sanitation, agriculture and livestock as priorities in the coordinated response, according to a statement released by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Friday.
UNICEF is also assisting by providing resources for cleaning water tanks, sensitising populations to the health risks of drinking possibly contaminated water, and ensuring clean water supplies to schools.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is providing technical assistance to help the authorities assess public health, and water and sanitation conditions.
Since the eruption started on 24 November, "many people, especially the elderly and children," were having trouble breathing, as they have been inhaling volcanic dust, OCHA warned.
The French Red Cross Society's Regional Intervention Platform for the Indian Ocean (PIROI) has sent an emergency response team and mobilised water sanitation equipment.
The University of La Reunion has sent technical experts to assist in evaluating Mount Karthala's condition, and UNOSAT, a United Nations initiative that provides access to satellite imagery, is being used to determine the scope of the damage.
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