Drilling for Water—and a Future—in a Camp for Quake Survivors
Eighteen-year-old Muhammad Rehan pulls his left arm from the shawl draped over his body and points toward Kanni, his hometown in the snowcapped hills.
After the October 8 earthquake, Rehan and his family covered what remained of their house in plastic sheets and attempted to spend the winter there. But the cold soon became unbearable. About a month ago, the family left their home for lower ground: a tidy tent camp run by the Pakistan Army in Maira, where they now live with roughly 22,000 other survivors driven there by the harsh weather.
Maira Camp sits along the Indus River in Kohistan and just off the fabled Karakoram Highway, the road that paved the Silk Route all the way to the Himalayas and through China. Here, Rehan’s family handles the daily struggles of camp living: lining up for kerosene, waiting for electricity, and debating what to drink since the water in the camp is so heavily chlorinated it makes the milk in chai tea curdle.
There is no spring nearby and solid waste and dead animals have contaminated the cold, trout-filled Indus, so trucks suck water from the river and deliver it to a reservoir uphill where it is treated. Another scheme filters the river water at the source and feeds it through the few taps in the camp.
“We’re not using it for cooking because it smells a lot,” says Rehan, whose relatives collect water from the river or one of the taps. But he says there are other reasons some camp residents don’t want to drink the treated water: “Most of the people here think the chlorine and other chemicals they’re adding are for family planning.”
But drinking untreated water is dangerous. Gul Rangeen, speaking through the cloth wall surrounding her tent, recalls that diarrhea and other water-borne diseases were common in the first week her family arrived in the camp. But she says she and her family had no choice but to seek shelter here: “If we don’t come down, we die.”
Soon, camp residents will no longer worry about where to get enough clean and safe water. At the request of UNICEF, one of the international organizations serving the camp, the International Rescue Committee has begun drilling the first of two wells to supply water to the camp’s growing population.
“The people here know we’re drilling and they’re happy,” says IRC drilling expert Muhammad Yaqub as a small crowd gathered to watch a generator power the drill into the ground. “These two wells will be more than enough to provide water to this area.”
““There will be no transport costs,” adds IRC engineer Muhammad Irfan. “There will be no chemicals and it will be easily accessible.”
Many of Maira’s residents have gotten used to the chlorinated taste of their chai. But this will change once the IRC-constructed wells and boreholes start operating in February.
“We can live without eating,” jokes Mian Sarfaraz, who used to live in the village of Gossra. “But we can’t live without chai.”