Hand washing alone can prevent most water-related diseases

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Giovanni Zambello in Ishinomaki

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 tank, which bears the logo of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

One of the Red Cross teams deployed in the area of Ishinomaki has worked all morning to set up this large 1,000 litre water tank in the middle of the yard of Kaihoku elementary school, which has been turned into one of the 200 evacuation centres scattered throughout the area in Miyagi prefecture.

The water tank will 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 been the serious disruption of infrastructure 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 damage to services and facilities, with the local Red Cross hospital experiencing power interruptions and a number of evacuation centres still lacking adequate water 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,” says Dr. Tadashi Ishii, a surgeon in Ishinomaki hospital, while accompanying us on our visit to the evacuation centre set up in Watanoha elementary school, located some 20 minutes from the town.

“As of today, drainage systems are still not working in this and other centres, which has made the sanitary situation extremely challenging,” he continues.

Dr. Ishii explains how in the first days after the setting up of the centre, the first suspect cases of diarrhoea, coughs 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 200 centres throughout the prefecture were selected to put in place 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 Society has been the setting up of 12 water tanks 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 task such as washing hands after using chemical toilets can help prevent a number of dangerous diseases among the evacuees,” says Teiji Yamada, a Red Cross engineer with a long experience in water and sanitation activities. “The Japanese Red Cross Society has decided to invest part of the funds donated by National Societies from across the world in 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 help improve sanitary conditions in the centres and the health of the hundreds of people who are accommodated in them.”