Giving clean water back to Turkey's quake-hit communities

by Arzu Ozsoy in Ankara
"Everyone forgot about us, but the Red Cross" says Nevzat Gocer, Kocaeli Province Planning/Coordination Manager, talking about the Avluburun Water Treatment Project (WTP).

In the second half of 1999, north-western Turkey was struck by two massive earthquakes in less than three months. The first, centred on the industrial city of Izmit, killed over 17,000 people and injured 44,000 in August. Three months later, another 845 people perished in a second tremor.

The legacy of the Marmara earthquakes is still visible. Not only there was a considerable physical and mental cost to people, but the region's infrastructure was also severely damaged.

"The earthquake destroyed the water supply system which was vital for the local population," Gocer says. "Afterwards, landslides triggered by the quake contaminated the water and deprived people living in the region of clean drinking water."

The Avluburun water treatment project was part of the International Federation's reconstruction and rehabilitation programme for water and sanitation infrastructure damaged during the Marmara earthquakes. Since the completion of the emergency and post emergency phases, the International Federation and Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS), together with the relevant authorities, have been focusing on improving the quality of life of the affected population through these reconstruction and rehabilitation schemes.

"We used to dread the rain," says 60-year-old Avluburun villager Aziz Iscimen, "because the rain made the water dirty and smelly. Now we have fresh water and we really appreciate that."

Since 1986, the Avluburun Potable Water Supply System has been serving a large region in Kocaeli Province, measuring 80 km by 40 km, containing five municipalities, 40 villages and more than 50.000 people. But during the earthquake, the water source was contaminated by a large-scale landslide.

"The crystal clear water turned the colour of Coca-Cola," one local newspapers said, while appealing for financial assistance for the project. The water was not only discoloured, it was also contaminated, posing a real health risk to the population.

Understanding the needs of and the benefits to the local population was vital. Like in other Red Cross Red Crescent projects, the aim of the Avluburun project was to encourage the participation of the local authorities and recipient communities, which contributed materials, labour or financial resources. The project was shaped by collective decision-making, according to requests from the local communities.

While the Kocaeli Governorship funded the civil works, the Swiss Red Cross, Swiss Solidarity Chain, Austrian Red Cross and Liechtenstein Red Cross funded the electromechanical aspects of the project through the Federation and TRCS, Turkey's oldest and largest humanitarian aid agency.

Samim Meric, Project Supervisor of Kocaeli Rural Services says the collaboration with the Federation and the TRCS was very rewarding: "It empowered us a lot as we have learned things from each other. They coached us by transferring their skills and their system. It is amazing to witness those people from the donor countries contributing to our daily lives and health. That gives us the motivation to reach each and every village in the region as well as a big responsibility to monitor the water system."

The Federation and TRCS facilitated the project by allowing the community to have the ownership of the programme and the local authorities have been empowered in various aspects of the project. Köy Hizmetleri (Rural Services), the Turkish organisation responsible for water and sewage treatment in rural areas, made the designs and supervised the technical aspects of the electromechanical and civil works.

Because of the system in rural Turkey, the project will by maintained and run by the Avluburun Water Union, a non-profit organization consisting of the governor of Kocaeli, the director of Kocaeli's Rural Services, five mayors and 40 muhtars, or village leaders.

"We have 320 houses and 1880 residents in our village, who were suffering for a lack of clean water," says Ibrahim Akyol, muhtar of Avluburun village.

"Before, it was impossible to find clean water and it was terrible not to be able to drink enough water especially during summer. Now we have clean and tasty water. I can see the villagers' satisfaction from the smile on their faces," he adds.

It was because local officials like Ibrahim Akyol were deeply involved in completing the Avluburun WTP and in delivering it to the local community that they will enjoy monitoring the fact that people in the region will be receiving crystal clear water for years to come.